Southern Lights Bistro quietly celebrates 20 years
July 22 will be the twentieth anniversary of Southern Lights Bistro, the little beige restaurant on the corner of Friendly and Smyres Place whose name has nothing to do with the interior lighting and home decorating shop that sits next to it.
Co-owners Peter Hamilton and John B. Drees had planned to keep the anniversary quiet. Drees, who says the restaurant makes a healthy living on a few thousand local customers, claims the bistro is the city’s best-kept secret. But here at YES! Weekly, of course, we like to shout things from the rooftops, so we’re announcing it to all of you.
If you haven’t ventured into the simple building with the fading sign then you’re in for a treat. Inside, fine artwork hangs along walls peering out on the simple tables and chairs and giving an elegant look and feel to the place. Currently, paintings by Lori Key color the room with abstract flowers, farm scenes and Chinese lettering ‘— a collaboration of the artist’s finest works that have appeared in numerous fine galleries around town.
Waitress Leanne Pizio, decked out in formal black and white attire, drifts from table to table passing out smiles, refilling glasses of tea and pointing out menu items for customers during lunch.
It’s my first trip to the restaurant and, being one of the less cultured among us, looking over the lunch menu I’m not sure what to order. There are a lot of words like ‘“baguette’” and ‘“Havarti cheese’” and ‘“remoulade sauce’” and ‘“pineapple and herb mayonnaise’” on the menu. I’m used to words like ‘“hamburger’” and ‘“French fries.’”
My wife, the pro, quickly orders the Bohlen, a grilled chicken sandwich served on an onion roll with mozzarella cheese, spinach, prosciutto, and grilled pineapple and herb mayonnaise (except without the pineapple). Our waitress has come back to take our order for the second time and I’m still trying to decipher the menu code when I see the Reference Burger, classic char-grilled and served with a slice of cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato on an onion roll. Now for my side item: there’re no fries, and I really don’t need them, so I must choose between pesto pasta and tossed salad. I choose the pasta.
When our plates arrive they look festive with green spinach pasta and peas, the bright orange slice of cheese, red tomato and little silver cups with bright red ketchup and dark yellow mustard. Now Burger King always said I could have it my way but they never made it like this. If a hamburger can be gourmet then this one sure was. It was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. I even ate all the pasta with peas and finished off my wife’s pasta (which I’m not sure is proper, but I couldn’t help myself).
Her sandwich was good, too. Unbelievably good.
There’s really no wonder it’s so good. All the ingredients are fresh, says Hamilton. There is no freezer and no microwave in this restaurant. Fresh beef and fish are delivered daily and there is a long list of fine wines to go with the food. Executive chef George Neill III oversees the kitchen and creates most of the delicacies found on the menu, which Drees refers to as ‘“cutting edge gourmet.’”
Peter Hamilton, formerly the head of restaurant division with Phillips Management, opened Southern Lights on July 22, 1985 with three other business partners. Drees was the original chef for the restaurant and became partner with Hamilton in 1989. And the name Southern Lights? That came over a bottle of wine as the first four original investors discussed the business. Someone suggested Northern Lights, and, they thought, why not Southern Lights. Now, only the two of them own the business and they also own and operate the 1618 West Seafood Grill, operating under the management name Northern Lights.
The next time I eat there I plan to be more adventurous. And it will be in the evening when the dinner menu is served, offering entrees like ‘“chicken roulade stuffed with spinach and mozzarella cheese,’” and grilled Chilean sea bass with crispy risotto cake,’” and pan seared catfish over shrimp, crab and andouille sausage dirty rice, gumbo sauce and topped with collard greens.’”
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