John’s City Diner

A few weeks ago, close friends of ours from Philly visited us for the first time. When you have a food blog, you sorta feel like you should know the perfect restaurant for every occasion. Especially when there are visitors in town. Trust me, I’m not complaining. This means we more often than not get to choose where we eat (poor us!). But back to the story-we had a decision to make.

Our friends are very easygoing, but we still agonized over where to take them for dinner. Someplace casual as they had just driven 14 hours to get to us (that’s friendship!), and also someplace that serves high quality, traditional southern fare that they probably wouldn’t have occasion to eat at home. And wanting to show them how cool our city is, downtown was a strong preference.

John’s City Diner seemed like a clear choice. Driving there from Southside, we got to show them some of the cool ghost signs around our city, and the pretty skyline.

When we entered John’s, we were informed that happy hour was in full force. Apparently, they have half price appetizers from 5-7 on weeknights if you sit in the bar area. Wow. How had we missed this in the three years we’ve been living here? We had already been scoping out the appetizers before we arrived not knowing about this great deal-happy hour seemed like a no-brainer.

The four of us had the bar to ourselves. Our server/bartender was excited to learn about our mission to show our northern friends the best of Birmingham. As she walked us through the appetizer menu it became apparent that ordering one of every appetizer on the menu, plus the fried oyster appetizer special, would be the perfect amount of food for all of us. She reassured us that we wouldn’t be the first to take this type of approach at happy hour time. Not that I’m shy about stuffing my face with food.

Before I begin the food montage, I want to just have a moment of silence to appreciate how fantastically unique and truly southern this meal was (in my Yankee opinion). Four friends, guided by a really fantastic server/bartender, sharing a good time and food that really, really hit the spot. I don’t know how else to explain the experience.

Ok, here we go.

Pimento cheese . First, I have to explain that I typically intensely dislike pimento cheese. This is one of those foods that doesn’t really exist above the Mason-Dixon Line, and so it isn’t something I grew up eating. I think my aversion to it has something to do with the consistency, which typically seems mushy to me. I discouraged my friend from getting it but she said she really likes Tilkamook cheddar cheese, which is apparently one of the best cheddars out there. This pimento is made of white and yellow cheddar with delicious peppers made creamy by just enough ?mayonnaise. The consistency was fantastic-you could really taste all of the short shreds of cheddar, which gave the cheese an intense sharp flavor. Absolutely addictive. And I love the presentation-the Ball jar makes me nostalgic for all the pimento cheese I could have eaten as a child. Served with crispy pita wedges.

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Next, the roasted garlic hummus. This was basically ordered just to make us feel better about all the other much less healthy items we ordered. But it was actually really stellar, I have to admit. The pita wedges were addictive-soft and chewy, and the hummus was garlicky and creamy.

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Next, the maple brazed pork belly atop creamy grits. I’ve had pork belly before, but never quite like this. Served in an adorable tiny skillet, this was basically like eating bacon at 100X magnification. Crispy and fatty. Good thing this was small because I think a larger portion would have to come with a mandatory ER visit, just to be on the safe side. But it was worth all of the calories and fat… Just melts in the mouth. We split it four ways. Perfect.

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Then the crab cakes-lump crab meat over top of skillet corn. The crab cakes were slightly crispy and perfectly seasoned. If you haven’t had John’s skillet corn, you need to stop what you are doing and go get some RIGHT NOW. Basically buttered fried corn. I’m so glad they included it in an appetizer, and the pairing with the crab cakes just worked.

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Then the homemade potato chips with blue cheese alfredo sauce. These had to be forcibly removed from my end of the bar. I don’t think they require much additional explanation:

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Fish and chips. Perfectly battered and fried, served in a bag (adorable). The fries had that perfect coating of crusty seasoning-you know what I’m talking about. Dunked liberally in homemade tartar. They were all gone instantly.

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Fried oysters. Soft, thickly battered little nuggets over top of spinach drizzled in balsamic. One of our friends swore he hated oysters; he ate the most out of any of us! This dish made him a believer.

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After all that, we were uncomfortably stuffed but…. After a few minutes of chatting with our server/bartender about the history of the restaurant, we had worked up an appetite. And besides, there were four of us… So we ordered two desserts to share: the white chocolate bread pudding and peanut butter pie. Given the number of dishes I’ve had to describe in this post, I’m out of adjectives to use for these desserts. All I can tell you is they tasted as good as they look, probably better:

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After that light meal, we needed to walk. We went by Railroad Park and it was buzzing with activity-people walking, running, biking, sitting and people-watching. We took a long, sloooow evening stroll. The perfect ending to our urban southern culinary adventure.

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