BESSEMER, Ala. (AP) — In 1989, Jimmy Koikos, the longtime co-owner of Bessemer’s historic Bright Star restaurant, began an annual tradition that has become known as A Night in New Orleans.

Jamie Shannon from New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace restaurant was the guest chef for the first several years at the Bright Star event.

After Shannon died of cancer in 2001, another Commander’s Palace chef, Tory McPhail, later took on the mantle for a few years.

And last year, Thomas Robey, another Commander’s Palace alum and the current head chef at Tujague’s Restaurant, came to the Bessemer restaurant to be the guest chef at the 2019 New Orleans event.

A lot has changed at the Bright Star since that last A Night in New Orleans event last August, though.

Koikos, who poured 60 years of his life into running the restaurant, died following his own fight with cancer this past November.

And in March, the 113-year-old restaurant had to temporarily close its dining room for about two months due to the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated the restaurant industry.

The Bright Star reopened to 50% of its usual seating capacity of 330 guests in mid-May, but then, after a server tested positive for the coronavirus on July 12, the restaurant closed for another week to undergo a thorough cleaning and to test all the employees before they could return to work. The restaurant reopened this past Sunday, July 19.

So, the New Orleans tradition that Jimmy Koikos started couldn’t come at a better time for the staff at the Bright Star, as well as all the longtime customers who have kept Alabama’s oldest family-owned restaurant in business all these years.

A Night in New Orleans – it actually takes place over four nights, not just one -- returned to the Bright Star for another year on Thursday, July 30; Friday, July 31; Saturday, Aug. 1, and Sunday, Aug. 2.

“We think it’s important to keep that tradition going,” Andreas Anastassakis, the executive chef and co-owner of the Bright Star, says. “This is 31 years now of doing the event. To lose a year would really take away from the significance of what Jimmy started back in 1989 with Jamie Shannon.

“To keep that going, what Jimmy started, that’s what we’re here to do,” Anastassakis, a cousin of Koikos and his younger brother, Nicky Koikos, adds. “Jimmy put 60 years into this place, and we’re just blessed to be able to continue what he got us started with here.”

‘A LONG HISTORY TOGETHER’

Robey, who previously worked in Birmingham as the executive chef at the old Veranda on Highland for five years, is coming back to the Bright Star for another year as the guest chef at A Night in New Orleans.

Tujague’s Restaurant, the 164-year-old New Orleans institution where Robey became executive chef in 2018, closed in early March because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and it has remained closed because it is in the process of moving from its old home in the French Quarter into a new location a few blocks away. Plans are to reopen by September, Robey says.

Except for five nights of dinners to allow longtime guests to say goodbye to the old Tujague’s a few weeks ago, Robey hasn’t cooked for a big audience in almost five months. So, he’s itching to get back in the kitchen.

“I am raring to go,” Robey says. “I wasn’t meant to have as much free time. I’m totally looking forward to coming down and seeing the Bright Star and seeing my old friends.”

Robey goes way back with the Koikos brothers and the Bright Star.

As a cook at Commander’s Palace in the early 1990s, he came to the Bright Star’s New Orleans dinners as part of Shannon’s team, and after returning to Commander’s as sous chef in 2012, he came back to Bessemer to work alongside McPhail at the event.

“It was Jimmy and Nicky (Koikos) that brought Commander’s and the Bright Star together years ago,” Robey says. “They sent all of their managers to come work with us, and they hung out for four or five weeks for no other reason than the Bright Star just respected the way we did business. That’s how this whole thing got started.

“We just all have a long history together -- a long history of helping each other out and trading ideas and trading recipes and trading good concepts on how to treat people.”

As in years past, the menu for A Night in New Orleans will feature Bright Star favorites such as seafood gumbo, Greek-style tenderloin and snapper almondine on one side and special New Orleans dishes from the guest chef on the other.

This year, for his side of the menu, Robey will prepare a seafood court-bouillon, an English pea and bacon salad, iron-seared Gulf snapper, veal grillades and grits, pan-seared duck breast and an Alabama pecan cornbread cobbler for dessert.

‘MOST EXCITING WEEK OF THE YEAR’

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, though, A Night in New Orleans will look a lot different this year.

To avoid having crowds gather in the lobby, this year’s event will be open to guests with reservations only.

“There will be no walk-ins,” Anastassakis says. “Guests will be asked to wait outside or in their car, and we will send them a text message or call them when their table is available to avoid the big crowds in the lobby.”

Also, in keeping with a face mask order issued by the Jefferson County Health Department last month, all guests will be required to wear a mask while walking through the restaurant. The masks may be removed when they sit down at their table to eat. All Bright Star staff members will wear masks at all times.

The restaurant also will be limited to 50 percent of its normal capacity, with tables and booths at least six feet apart and no more than eight people at a table. The tables will be sanitized between parties.

“As far as keeping everybody safe, I think we have done a great job at the Bright Star,” Anastassakis says. “We’ve gotten a lot of compliments from our guests that come in now. They feel like we’re taking all of the proper precautions.

“Everybody is wearing the masks and keeping everybody distanced and no more than eight at a table,” he adds. “We’ve had to be pretty strict.”

So, yeah, it will be different this year, but after all they’ve been through these past several months, the staff at the Bright Star is thrilled to be hosting A Night in New Orleans again, Anastassakis says.

“It’s the most exciting week of the year for us,” he says. “We look forward to it, and then it’s so much work (that) we look forward to it being over.

“Then, too, I think it’s something right now that can help lift the spirits of the employees, as well,‘’ he adds. “They’re struggling right now.

“This is something we can look forward to and give us a little excitement in our lives right now.”

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