By MADOLINE MARKHAM
Gus’s Hot Dogs in Crestline has served its hot dogs—complete with the same recipes for homemade hot dog sauce, slaw, chili and seasoned beef—for the past 42 years. For many, eating there is nostalgic, but for most the comfort food just plain tastes good.
Kids learn from their dads or grandmothers to order a hot dog “regular” (mustard, sauerkraut, onion and sauce) or a “special” (same ingredients with seasoned ground beef on top). “You can tell if someone is not from Birmingham by how they order their hot dog,” said Ernie Gerontakis, who owns the restaurant and has expanded its menu in recent years.
A third generation of customers stops by Gus’s for breakfast on the way to school or after school for an Icee and fries.
Gerontakis took over the business two years ago. “My first job was doing this, and this is what I always wanted to do,” he said.
Beginning at age 15, Gerontakis learned the hot dog business from the Graphos family at Sneaky Pete’s in Mountain Brook Village. He also learned to cook chicken and beef from his restaurateur parents.
Sneaky Pete’s and Gus’s were both part of an empire of hot dog restaurants started by Greek immigrants beginning in the early 1900s— Dino’s Hot Dogs, Lyric Hot Dogs, Tom’s Koneys, Pete’s Famous, Gus’s Hot Dogs, to name a few. With experience in cooking and hospitality, the Greeks served hot dogs to Birmingham’s steel workers, coal miners and people of all walks of life, according to a “Hot-Dogopolis” documentary by Southern Foodways Alliance.
Both the Crestline location and the Gus’s Hot Dogs downtown were started by Gus Alexander. Gerontakis’ brother, Nick, owned the downtown location for 20 years, but today there is no relationship between the two restaurants.
Gerontakis’ Greek immigrant parents owned Fair Café and James Café downtown when he was growing up. He and Nick came to the restaurants after school, ate there and did homework there. It was home to them. Their parents didn’t speak English well, and the boys were writing checks and paying bills for the restaurant at 10 years old.
After being in charge of the annual Greek Food Festival for years, Gerontakis has added a grilled chicken pita to the menu at Gus’s. Flavorful marinated chicken is topped with lettuce, tomato and his tzatziki sauce. You can also order chicken dinners to take home and for office luncheons and parties.
Other menu items are chili cheese fries, a Cuban sandwich, a Philly cheese sandwich, homemade tuna and chicken salads, burgers and salads—all for a more than affordable price. They also sell homemade brownies with fudge icing and chocolate chip cookies.
Former customers of Pete’s Famous Hot Dogs downtown are starting to migrate to Gus’s, and he draws customers from Hueytown, Liberty Park, the 280 corridor and Pelham who have never been to Crestline before.
No matter where they come from, Gerontakis knows his customers and tries his best to remember what they order. His favorite memory is seeing 50 to 60 kids come in after ballroom dancing lessons at Steeple Arts. The girls were in white glove and dresses and the boys in suits. They all ordered hot dogs, of course.
Gus’s Hot Dogs
71 Church Street
Monday-Friday, 6:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m.
Saturday, 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m.