Photo courtesy of Ted’s Restaurant
Almost all Southern chefs and Southerners who love to cook will tell you they learned about cooking from their mothers or grandmothers, that gathering around food was a family tradition, and they’re always trying to recreate some flavoring or dessert that they discovered in childhood. We may think this is a uniquely Southern truth, but any member of Birmingham’s legacy Greek culinary community will tell you they share the same experience, and grew up the same way, with everything revolving around food, family and welcome. Beba and Tasos Touloupis, chef/owners of the iconic meat & three Ted’s Restaurant are proof of this and almost make one wonder – did Southern cooking and hospitality in Birmingham simply incorporate Greek immigrants’ cuisine and culture when they arrived in the early 1900s, or did what we now know as Southern cooking and hospitality emerge out of Greek cuisine, traditions and hospitality that took root in this young industrial city 120 years ago? It is a mystery, but one thing is certain: Greek heritage and Greek cuisine are at the heart and soul of our local food identity now, and based on the continued success of traditional Greek-owned restaurants, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Beba and Tasos Touloupis | photo courtesy of Ted’s Restaurant
Tasos Touloupis grew up in Greece; Beba grew up in the Bahamas with Greek parents. Both came from traditional Greek families steeped in their culture’s cooking and tradition. Both moved to Alabama, fell in love and decided to make their lives in Birmingham because “people were so friendly here,” says Tasos. The city also had a large Greek community, so they felt at home. As a student at the University of Alabama, Tasos earned a BS in aerospace engineering. When he applied for work at the Space Center in Huntsville, however, he hit a roadblock. New government policies forbade security clearances for non-US citizens, and he had to choose a different direction.
Ted Sarris | photo courtesy of Ted’s Restaurant
Tasos had worked in food since he was 16. “As a teenager, I was the personal waiter for the Prime Minister of Greece, and worked in the best resort restaurants,” he says. “As a student in Alabama, and even when I had a day job, I always worked nights in restaurants.” After the Space Center disappointment and an unfulfilling stint of office work, he committed to the work he had always enjoyed, and became the club manager at the Riverchase Country Club (“I needed to be around people,” he says). From there he went on to the Green Valley Country Club, which became the Hoover Country Club, and over time, honed his cooking and catering skills, subtly infusing the traditional country club menu with Greek specialties and seasoning, and brightening the experience with his personality and warm hugs. He was a favorite of all who knew him.
Photo courtesy of Ted’s Restaurant
Years passed. Then, in 2000, Ted Sarris, the Greek chef/owner of the iconic Ted’s Restaurant downtown, met with Tasos and Beba about a catering event. He was charmed by the couple, and decided they were the perfect team to take over his restaurant, and continue the Greek tradition of welcome he had established there since 1973. Tasos and Beba had thought about opening a restaurant of their own and had looked at lots of places. They had never been to Ted’s, but the day they walked in, they knew it was the place for them. “It was one room, one small space you could have control over,” Tasos says. “It was just what we wanted.” He continues, “We didn’t have to change anything, and that’s what Ted wanted. After we bought it, ‘Mister Ted’ stayed on for awhile and taught us his recipes for dishes his customers came back for every day. He said, ‘Beba needs to work side by side with you.’ So she did.” Twenty years later, Tasos and Beba are still at the restaurant every day, serving up the dishes that made Ted’s a local favorite, though Tasos says, over the years, he has adapted and enhanced almost every dish, with a little “country club flair.” His favorite ingredients are fresh red bell pepper and dried oregano. (“Red bell pepper is colorful and adds a nice flavor. Of course dried oregano is what we use in all Greek dishes. We go through 10 pounds in a week.”) He continues, “We added a few other things too. We built a catering business, which Mister Ted didn’t have and we introduced more vegetables and fresh items to the menu too.”
Ted’s souvlaki | photo courtesy of Ted’s Restaurant
“We’ve always been ‘farm to table.’ We change the menu depending on what’s available. But there are certain traditional dishes we always serve, like Souvlaki and Greek Chicken – those are our all-time customer favorites. One time, sports icon Charles Barkley came to the restaurant. He’d never been there before and ordered the Greek chicken with three veggies. He said, ‘Man this is the best chicken I ever tasted!’ It was so good he ordered a second serving.” He laughs and continues, “We’ve done catering for big movie productions too – that’s been fun. One time a production crew sent us to the wrong address. We set up all the food, but in a stranger’s house! Haha. When the crew figured out what had happened, they just picked up their gear and ran to where we were. They didn’t want to miss a meal!”
Ted’s Restaurant | photo courtesy of tripadvisor.com
For now, those fun, crazy days are on hold, says Tasos. “Because of COVID-19, our lunch and catering business has almost disappeared. Hardly anyone is working downtown so no one is there to drop in for a quick meal. At least now we can serve inside the restaurant at 50% capacity, and we’ve set up tables outside under tents, which is a nice change since the weather has been so good. We’re hoping people will start coming back. In the restaurant, we’re really strict about mask-wearing, and cleaning before customers sit down and after they leave. We sanitize everything. We’re serving a full menu at lunch – no more breakfast for now, and we’re doing ok. We’re also planning to start serving a nice a la carte Saturday brunch, 7am-1pm, in a few weeks, with omelettes and pancakes. There aren’t that many places to eat on Saturday mornings. Maybe people will enjoy coming after they shop at the farmers market!”
Beba and Tasos Touloupis | photo courtesy of AL.com
“Not being able to hug his customers, family and friends has been terrible for Tasos,” Beba says. (Tasos is a hugger!) “But he’ll be ok and we’ll get through this. We’re going to keep fighting.” Lots of great articles have been written about the Touloupis’, which you can read here. Ted’s Restaurant is open daily for lunch, and all are invited to eat in or take out a meal that “tastes like your mother or your grandmother made it,” says Tasos. You can see their daily menu here. Beba and Tasos will also be set up at the Market at Pepper Place this Saturday, chatting with shoppers and fans and selling take-home versions of two super-popular Ted’s specialties, souvlaki and squash casserole, which are not to be missed. They remind us we live in a great city, where people are kind and welcoming, and anything is possible when people sit down and eat together.