Photo by Keith McCoy.
Amanda Thames, pictured with the Jim Special, runs Davenport’s Pizza with her aunt, Heather Norris.
There is something to be said for longstanding traditions. Ask any Auburn fan about the oaks at Toomer’s Corner, and they’ll tear up. Alabama fans might do the same when talking about Bear Bryant. Southerners are a passionate lot, and we hold firm to certain routines and preferences. Jim Davenport’s Pizza Palace is one such place that stirs memories and conjures up fond feelings.
Originally opened in 1964, Davenport’s has been serving up hot, fresh, classic pizzas to generations of Mountain Brook families. One step inside that familiar heavy wooden door on Cahaba Road, and you instantly feel at home. In summer time, the cool interior provides a respite from the brutally hot asphalt outside. The faint digital cacophony drifting from the back room reminds you there are video games waiting for hungry patrons whiling away the time until their meal arrives. The air smells of fresh yeasty pizza dough and that traditional marinara sauce.
It is the kind of feeling Rex Hollis was always hoping for when he opened the doors all those years ago. He had the idea for a place where families could meet for dinner or friends could share a few slices (or squares, really) of pizza at lunch. He was looking for instant name recognition when he struck upon something novel. He’d been best friends with a guy whose brother became something of a professional baseball player. In fact, that guy – Jim Davenport – had helped the San Francisco Giants win the World Series in 1962. Everyone knew who that guy was. Hollis asked if the pro would mind letting him use his name, and the original namesake was flattered. Perhaps he’d tried Hollis’ pizza and already knew it would be a hit in and of itself. So, why not?
And so the Pizza Palace was born. Rex and his wife, Ardyce, moved to adjacent Mountain Brook Manor so they could walk to work and raised their family there. They built a loyal following with such menu items as the Jim Special (kind of a supreme-style) and the Rex Special (with all of the toppings on top of the cheese). The rest of the offerings are pretty straightforward. You won’t see any trendy additions like micro-greens or tofu.
There are a few secrets to the restaurant’s success, but these are readily shared by Hollis’ daughter, Heather Norris, who now runs the family business. She shares the duties with her niece, Amanda Thames, who assists in bookkeeping. Norris makes all of the dough and marinara sauce from scratch for every single pizza. She uses the family recipes, but those specifics are not for sharing in print. She makes the Italian and French dressing from scratch as well.
“Over the years, we’ve had a lot of patrons ask us to bottle the dressing – you know, to give out to friends at Christmastime – but I don’t think we’d ever do it. I think one of the reasons they like it so much is because of where they’re eating it. They feel good when they are here, and that adds to their fondness for the dressing.”
Another secret to the Palace’s success is Dave Simpson, who has been tossing dough and handcrafting signature Davenport’s thin-crust pies for more than 30 years.
“He has his own way of making the pizzas that is pretty unique,” Thames said. “Folks will call before they come, just to see if Dave is working. They only want one of Dave’s pizzas.”
enerally shy and avoiding cameras or small talk, Simpson does assist in training new hires to make the old-school favorites.
“He shows them how he does it, but each person eventually puts their own spin on things,” Norris said. But with sauce and dough made from scratch, it’s easy to see why the pizzas are still classics.
Sadly, Ardyce Hollis passed away in 2000 and Rex Hollis followed in 2009, but their legend lives on – in the red and white checked tablecloths, wrapped Chianti bottles and old-school Italian restaurant charm. So come hungry, and make sure you bring plenty of quarters for video games. Ms. Pac-Man and a Rex Special are waiting for you.