The regulars know to get here early on Sunday morning.
By 10 o’clock, a half-hour before Eagle’s Restaurant opens its takeout windows, a socially distant line has already started forming, stretching from the front of the little cinderblock building down 16th Street North toward Birmingham’s ACIPCO pipe plant.
“If you don’t get here early, you’re going to be standing out here for a good little while,” says James “J Roc” White, who’s here with about a dozen other early birds. “You stay out here long enough, this line’s going to get longer and longer by the time church gets out.”
White, a chef and pitmaster, doesn’t need to see the menu board to know what he’s going to order.
“I’m definitely getting the oxtails and the chicken and dressing,” he says. “I’m debating on the sides. I change up on the sides, but as far as meat, it’s going to be oxtails and chicken and dressing. That’s mandatory.”
Inside the restaurant, Eagle’s owner Delores Banks and her daughter Ayana Banks tend to large pots of collard greens and sweet potatoes, while her son Jamal Rucker and Jacqueline “Fuzzy” Reaves prep the steam table for the Sunday rush.
“Each day is unexpected,” Delores says. “We don’t know if we’re going to sell out or not, but they’re coming in for it.”
Jamal’s dad, Joe Rucker, who used to own the restaurant and, at 87, still comes in to cut the oxtails and neck bones on occasion, sits in one of the booths and takes in all the action.
He glances over at the Styrofoam to-go boxes that practically sag under the weight of the huge helpings.
“They fix a lot of food, don’t they?” he says. “I tell you what, you won’t find another café in Birmingham or nowhere else that puts as much food on a plate as they do.”
‘Fly like an eagle’
An institution in north Birmingham’s ACIPCO-Finley neighborhood, Eagle’s Restaurant goes back 70 years, and Delores — “Miss D,” as some folks know her — has kept the venerable soul food restaurant going since she bought it in1993.
A railroad man named W.M. Owens opened Eagle’s in 1951, and Joe Rucker started coming here in the mid-1950s, soon after he began working in the machine shop at the American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO) plant down the street.
Owens, Joe says, built his place to last, fortifying the roof with planks and rafters hewn from the wooden floors of train box cars.
“He built it from the ground up,” Joe says. “It will be here from now on at the top.”
The Eagle’s name endured, too.
“He told me he wanted his place to fly like an eagle,” Joe says. “That’s what he wanted to do, and it looks like he did it.”
In those early years, Eagle’s was the place where factory workers dropped in for a cold beer and a burger after their shifts ended.
“I used to come in every day when I worked at ACIPCO,” Joe says. “When I got off work in the evening time, I used to stop by here and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon.”
Joe and Mr. Owens became friends — “Mr. Owens was just like my daddy in a way,” he says — and Joe often talked to him about buying Eagle’s one day.
“I would tell him I wanted to run his business if he ever got rid of it,” Joe says. “He told me, as long as I keep the Eagle’s name, he’ll let me have it. He didn’t want me to change the name of Eagle’s.
“And he told his wife on his dying bed don’t let nobody have this place but me, and that’s how I got it.”
In 1974, a few months after Owens died, Joe bought the business from his widow.
RELATED: A taste of Philly in sweet home Alabama
A cook who had worked for Owens stayed on to help Joe run the restaurant.
“I had a lady named Miss (Mary) Tate,” Joe says. “She cooked here for about 30 years. . . . I learned how to cook oxtails, cut the oxtails, cut the neck bones and all that kind of stuff under her.”
Miss Tate would open in the mornings, and Joe would come in to close after his shift ended at ACIPCO.
“She was the boss lady,” Joe says.
Joe was a natural with the electric band saw used to trim the oxtails and neck bones.
“I used to run a saw at ACIPCO, and it wasn’t no problem for me learning how to run it,” he says. “It don’t bother me, and I know how to handle it.”
After Miss Tate retired in 1990, though, Joe says he grew tired of running Eagle’s by himself and decided to close it a year or so later.
It sat empty for about a year. Although he had plenty of potential buyers, he wouldn’t sell it to just anybody.
He had a promise to keep to Mr. Owens.
“I had a bunch of people (who) wanted it,” Joe says, “but I didn’t let ‘em have it because they wanted to change the name of it.”
‘A divine intervention’
Long before she even thought about running a restaurant, Delores Banks was still trying to figure out what she was going to do with her life when, in her late 20s, she enrolled in the barber program at Lawson State Community College.
She found her calling.
After completing the program, Delores built up a nice little business with clients that included Birmingham radio legend Shelley “The Playboy” Stewart and future Birmingham mayor Larry Langford.
“I thank God every day that I went to Lawson State and learned how to cut hair and become a barber because that took care of me and my family,” she says.
“And when I took on that job, I’ve never been without a dollar ever since,” she adds. “I’m not saying that to be uppity or nothing like that, but when you are working like that, how can you go broke?”
Another one of her customers was Birmingham chef Willie Terry, who ran a catering business and told Delores that he was looking to open a restaurant.
Delores knew that Eagle’s had been vacant since Joe Rucker had closed it, and in 1993, she went into partnership with Terry to reopen it.
In keeping with Mr. Owens’ wishes — and at Joe’s insistence — they didn’t change the name, only tweaking it from Eagle’s Café to Eagle’s Restaurant.
The plan was for Terry to run the restaurant while Delores continued to cut hair.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” she says now. “I thought I was going into an easy investment. I thought chef Willie Terry was one of the best chefs in Birmingham. People loved Chef Terry’s food.”
Within a few months, though, their partnership dissolved, and it was up to Delores to keep Eagle’s going.
“Mind you,” she says, “I was not ever interested in doing any cooking — only in running the business.”
RELATED: An iconic Alabama steakhouse, and the woman who keeps it going
She hired a cook, “Miss Alicestine” Townsend, who knew all the tricks to preparing neck bones, oxtails, pig feet and other soul food dishes that Delores had not only never cooked but rarely eaten.
“I started paying attention to what she did,” Delores recalls. “I would ask her questions: ‘How do you do this? Why do you do that?’ She didn’t know she was training me. I was doing an uncover training.
“In the beginning, I knew nothing about cooking soul food,” Delores adds. “Oxtails — never cooked ‘em before. Pig feet, pig ears, neck bones, food like that — I never really cooked it. I don’t think I had even eaten it.
“So, I watched her. I asked her to show me how to clean neck bones. She showed me how to clean neck bones. She showed me how to clean chitlins.”
A few years later, Miss Alicestine walked out in a huff a couple of days before Mother’s Day, Delores says, and left her to open the restaurant by herself.
It was still dark outside when she arrived at 5:30 that Sunday morning to unlock the door.
“Because I’m by myself, I’m looking around, checking out my surroundings,” Delores remembers. “I get out of my truck. I didn’t see anybody. But soon as I got to the door, a guy passed by and he said, ‘Happy Mother’s Day.’”
She let out a sigh of relief.
“Whew!” she says. “At that moment, I had a divine intervention. When that guy said, ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ to me, I was like, ‘Oh. Thank you.’”
That day, she says, it hit her that she was finally ready to do this on her own.
“That’s when I realized that I was the cook that I had been looking for,” Delores says. “I had been looking high and low, and I didn’t know it was me.”
‘Couldn’t leave my mom’
Jamal Rucker, Joe and Delores’ son, started helping his mother around the restaurant when he was 11 years old.
He would sweep the floor and take out the garbage, and after he got old enough to drive, he made runs to Sam’s Club to pick up supplies.
Jamal graduated from John Carroll Catholic High School in Birmingham, and after playing basketball at Calhoun Community College and Lawson State Community College, he went to Jacksonville State University to study marketing.
On weekends, though, he came home from school to help his mom at the restaurant.
“I would come home every weekend and go to Sam’s and work that Sunday and drive back to Jacksonville – every weekend,” he says. “I never stayed in Jacksonville during the weekends.”
The day after he graduated in 2006, he started working at Eagle’s fulltime.
“I couldn’t leave my mom,” Jamal says. “I just always wanted to help her because I know she works so hard.”
RELATED: Meet the chef who’s making hot chicken cool in Alabama
Putting his marketing degree to work, Jamal set up a website and installed a new sign with a message board outside the restaurant. Later, he started an online ordering system and set up Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts to stay connected with their customers. He wrote a business plan.
“It was my goal to position Eagles as the best soul food that I’ve tasted . . . to position in the consumers’ minds that we’re really good,” Jamal says.
“I saw our audience grow in front of my eyes,” he adds. “I remember days (when) I could sit down and eat lunch during business hours, but now I can barely take a bite of bread.”
While Jamal still manages the steamtable at lunch, over time, he has learned to cook from his mom, just as she did from Miss Alicestine.
“He’s cooking, and he’s got it down pat,” his mom says. “I wouldn’t let him if he didn’t have it, but he’s got it.”
Jamal has had to do a little “undercover training” of his own, though.
“It’s not easy getting the recipes from her,” he says. “You would think she would just tell me, but it’s not easy. I really had to dig deep and learn.
“It’s challenging and fun to be able to cook the same way as her,” he adds. “I’m still not her, but it makes me happy to wake up and get back to it the next day and try to get (to be) like her.”
The Zimmern effect
While Eagle’s had been around more than 60 years at the time, it took a visit from the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern in 2013 for many folks around Birmingham to finally discover it.
“That was an experience,” Jamal says. “I remember getting an email, and they said, ‘We want to put y’all on “Bizarre Foods America.”’ I said, ‘Whoa.’ I had been watching the show all the time.
“So, when they came, man, it was wonderful,” he goes on. “I wanted to know how they found out about us, and they just said some serious soul food people told them about us.”
It was snowing in Birmingham that January day when Zimmern and his crew arrived at Eagle’s to film their “Bizarre Foods America” segment.
Joe Rucker took Zimmern back into the kitchen and showed him how to cut neck bones.
“It was very poignant,” Zimmern recalled in a 2013 interview with AL.com. “We showed up there in the morning, and they are cleaning the neck bones by hand, one by one.
“There is a love and attention paid to that food that is kind of what restaurants and the hospitality business are all about.”
Later, when he sat down with Joe in one of the black vinyl booths at Eagle’s, Zimmern gave him his verdict.
“Best neck bones I’ve ever had,” he said. “No doubt about it.”
RELATED: Andrew Zimmern feasts on oxtails and sea urchins during Birmingham visit
After the show aired later that year, people from around the country started showing up at the little 24-seat restaurant, as well as folks from Birmingham who had never ventured into the neighborhood before.
“Everything changed,” Jamal says. “We became a destination location. People came from London and from all over the United States, saying they saw us on TV. And then locals started coming more.”
Beyond what it meant to their business, though, Zimmern’s endorsement was vindication to Joe and Delores and Jamal that what they were doing mattered.
“It meant that we were doing something right,” Jamal says. “That’s all you ever want to do in life, is do something right that people appreciate. And being appreciated makes you want to work hard and continue. You don’t want to let people down.
“For him to find this little ol’ place and come in here and enjoy what he experienced — things that we enjoy all the time — but to find out that he likes it, too, it just makes you happy.”
Coming back from COVID-19
This past year, Delores and Jamal were reminded yet again how much their little family restaurant means to their community.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced restaurants to close their dining rooms last spring, Eagle’s shut down for nearly seven months. Some customers worried that it may be closed for good.
While other Birmingham restaurants gradually began to reopen, Delores, who is 71 and diabetic, was wary of going back to work in such a tight space where maintaining a proper social distance is almost impossible. Her son was concerned, too.
“I just didn’t want her exposed to the public like that,” Jamal says of his mom. “I knew our place was so small that we really weren’t going to try to allow people back inside because if you ever saw the line on a Sunday, people used to be packed on top of each other like sardines. So we had to think of a plan.”
Finally, last October, after Jamal converted the two windows on the front of the restaurant into take-out windows, and once Delores felt more comfortable about going back into the kitchen, they reopened Eagle’s for to-go service only.
“I just made a decision to get on up and come on in and try to handle it,” Delores says. “Nobody had a clue that it was going to take this long.”
That first Sunday back, after word got out that Eagle’s was back, they were overwhelmed by the response.
“It made me realize how important we were to the community,” Delores says. “It was an eye-opening experience.”
Many of their customers are unfamiliar with or don’t have access to the restaurant’s online ordering system, Jamal says, so he came up with a plan for them to text-message their orders instead.
It worked too well.
“By the time that Sunday came, I had 159 texts,” he says. “At 10:30 (that morning), the phone wouldn’t stop ringing and I couldn’t even read the texts, so I just had to shut it down.
“And I’m still sorry for those that couldn’t get their text order because I thought that was going to be a good idea. But it was too much to handle.”
‘Ain’t never changed’
While the Eagle’s dining room remains closed indefinitely, the customers, like James “J Roc” White keep coming.
And they don’t mind getting up early and waiting in line.
“I mean, they are just downhome Southern food, top to bottom, and they’ve been around a while and they ain’t never changed,” White says. “They done stuck to what they’ve been doing for a long time, and as long as they keep doing that, I’m gonna support ‘em.”
When Delores Banks hears talk like that, she doesn’t know quite what to say.
“I am still in shock and in awe of the fact that people are lining up to eat my food,” she says “Me, who never cooked (before).”
Just as W.M. Owens dreamed when he opened his place all those many years ago, Eagle’s continues to soar.
Eagle’s Restaurant is at 2610 16th Ave. North in Birmingham. The phone is 205-320-0099. Hours are 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sundays through Fridays. The restaurant is open for take-out service only. To see a menu or place an online order, go here.
A small-town Alabama BBQ joint and the little boy who inspired it
The story behind these glorious Alabama grits
Making a forgotten Alabama barbecue restaurant relevant again
The Alabama chicken shack that’s famous far and wide