In the 1940’s, John Proferis opened John’s Restaurant in downtown Birmingham featuring fresh seafood, something of a novelty at that time. He developed a couple of signature dishes that became wildly popular — trout almandine and a special slaw, consisting of finely shredded cabbage topped with a tangy, orange, French-style dressing. With his Greek exuberance and flair, he built a large following of loyal customers. His daughter Zoe, known these days for her Zoe’s Kitchen franchises, loved eating in her father’s restaurant and watching him serve as host to all his diners. The location moved from its original spot on 21st Street and 1st Avenue North to what is now Richard Arrington Boulevard North in the mid-1970’s.
Shannon and Shana Gober bought the building and the John’s name in 2004. Since that purchase, they have been renovating, refurbishing, expanding, overhauling and “making it theirs” in every sense of the word. John’s City Diner, as it is now named, has black, white and gunmetal gray walls and furnishings with lots of stainless steel trimmings. It is definitely a Steel City kind of vibe. Even the stainless steel plates and serving dishes have a hip, edgy look to them.
Shannon Gober, who is the executive chef at John’s, refers to his menu as “upscale comfort food” or “refined soul food” and says that “suddenly soul food is new again.” Gober deliberately focuses on the quality of his ingredients. He proudly participates in REV Birmingham’s Urban Food Project which supports farmers from all over the state. Proteins served at John’s City Diner come from Fudge Family Farms (Madison, AL), Springer Mountain Farms (Mount Airy, Georgia), and Creekstone Farms (Arkansas City, Kansas).
Gober also says that “food is very global now, thanks to smart phones and the internet” and he believes the “gaps between regional foods have closed.” In other words, Birmingham diners want what diners around the country are eating. They are becoming increasingly savvy in their culinary demands.
At John’s, you can still order trout, but the options also include crispy duck, meatloaf, shrimp and grits, “not your mama’s macaroni and cheese,” and chicken and waffles. The JCD Burger is a work of art, and the fries are crispy and delicious. Sides often depend on what is available from local farmers. The fried whole okra is unusually good, as is the strawberry salad with fresh greens and balsamic dressing.
The desserts are worth exceeding your daily quota of calories. The white chocolate bread pudding features toasted pecans, and the frozen lemonade pie is tart and refreshing.
The lunch crowd at John’s is driven by the locals who work downtown. Businessmen and women, bankers, attorneys, the mayor and city council members are all frequent patrons. The dinner crowd could come from all over the world depending on what is going on in the city at any given time.
Some of the famous diners in recent years have included Mal Moore, former Athletic Director at the University of Alabama and Mike Slive, SEC Commissioner. Michael Clarke Duncan stopped by when he was in town during the filming of Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
The private dining room is often booked for rehearsal dinners, wedding and graduation parties or private corporate events. On a recent weekend night, the restaurant was closed because of three separate parties going on at once. Chef Gober and his staff handled everything smoothly and efficiently. John’s WILL take reservations for large groups, which is a big plus for this area of Birmingham.
One side of the John’s City Diner exterior is covered with an impressive mural created by the Magic City Mural Collective. MCMC was founded in the summer of 2014 by artists who view blank walls as opportunities to further city pride and boost economic development. They have an ambitious goal of “99 Neighborhoods, 99 Murals.” The one on John’s City Diner features a cityscape designed by Chef Gober’s creative wife Shana.
The atmosphere at John’s is festive. The food is amazing, and the prices are very reasonable. The tradition of serving happy diners is being carried on with excellence.