Ask McGehee

Constantine Panayiotou was a Greek immigrant who had come to Chicago in 1913 where he started out as a dishwasher and learned the restaurant business from the local chefs. In 1924, he arrived in Mobile where he opened his own restaurant at 80 St. Francis St., opposite the Battle House Hotel. As early as 1929, he was running the Elite Restaurant at 11 N. Royal St., the same location his namesake eatery would eventually occupy. The Elite, though, was apparently a casualty of the stock market crash.  

By July of 1934, owner Panayiotou opened Constantine’s Restaurant, billing the new establishment as “Mobile’s Finest Restaurant.” Within a dozen years,  a staff of 110 was serving an estimated 2, 000 meals a day. Constantine’s had its own butcher shop and bakery; even the salad dressings were made from scratch. It was one of Mobile’s first fully air-conditioned businesses and Joe, his headwaiter, had a gift for remembering countless customers and their favorite tables. And, the doors remained open 24 hours a day.

A Mardi Gras Tradition

Up until World War II, most Mardi Gras balls began at the Battle House but ended at Constantine’s. A headwaiter would later reminisce that the staff waited for the sight of “the first drooping white tie or wilted orchid” signaling the end of the dance. Seemingly within seconds, “every table was filled and it was a roaring good time until morning.” Others recalled that on such evenings, “the grand march of five hours earlier would start down the restaurant’s center aisle in full costume with dancing resuming on the sidewalk in front.” Mardi Gras balls gravitated to Fort Whiting Auditorium after World War II, but Constantine’s popularity continued well into the 1950s.

A Move to the West

By the 1960s, Downtown Mobile was changing. The new malls and housing developments pulled Mobilians ever westward. Following a fire in 1964, Constantine’s reopened in the new Rodeway Inn at 1500 Government Street. Although still serving seven days a week, the new Constantine’s was not open around the clock. Its advertised hours were from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m., which apparently put an end to the late-night revelry during the Mardi Gras season.

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Even still, Mobilians continued to enjoy the renowned menu of Constantine’s at its new location. One restaurant reviewer noted that the prime rib was so tender that she could cut it with a fork. Scamp almandine, casseroles brimming with lump crabmeat and baked caramel custards could be enjoyed with a tab averaging around $20.

By the mid-’70s, the Rodeway was a bit worn, and Constantine’s moved west one last time. The new location was on Azalea Road near Airport Boulevard in the heart of suburban sprawl. Constantine’s Gaslight Square Restaurant lasted until September of 1984.

Owner George Panayiotou, Constantine’s son, blamed the loss of his lease as the reason for the shutdown. It had survived a mere seven years at its last location and closed after a 50-year run as “Mobile’s Finest Restaurant.” Its original location on Royal Street has been a parking lot for decades.

Today, George Panayiotou continues the family’s culinary tradition serving as director of culinary operations for Cooper Restaurants, which includes Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Felix’s Fish Camp, The Bluegill Restaurant and a private supper club, The Supper Club at Sweet Water Branch.

Text by Tom McGehee

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