Top Hat Cafe, 1945, Columbus

top hat cafe sign columbus ga photograph copyright brian brown vanishing south georgia usa 2010

Long before “hot chicken” was nationally famous, the Top Hat Cafe in Columbus had a devoted following for their version, a bone-in breast served between two pieces of white bread. The restaurant was a local favorite for over half a century and closed sometime in the past ten years. Ray Charles is said to have been a big fan. After numerous requests Will Dockery wrote: Here it is, the Holy Grail of Fried Chicken, Top Hat…I worked with one of the founders’ daughters and talked her out of the recipe. Prep your chicken the night before 1/2 gal of water, 1/4 cup salt. Submerge and allow to soak over night. 6 cups all purpose flour, 1/2 cup cayenne pepper, 1/2 cup red pepper (flakes),  1/8 cup salt. Add ice water until the consistency of pancake batter is reached. Prepare deep fryer with Crisco solid vegetable shortening, heat to 375 degrees. Drop a small amount of batter into hot shortening and after it floats, taste it.  Some like it hot. Some like it hotter. Add equal parts of cayenne pepper and red pepper (flakes) to increase the heat. Drain Chicken from salt bath and pat dry, dip in batter and submerge in hot shortening. Breasts 14 min, thighs 10 min, legs 8 min, wings 6 min. Remove from shortening and allow to drain in a colander or on paper towels. And so it goes.

top hat cafe columbus ga photograph copyright brian brown vanishing south georgia usa 2010

 

Author: Brian Brown

Brian Brown is a documentary photographer, author, and historian who lives in Coastal Georgia.

47 thoughts on “Top Hat Cafe, 1945, Columbus”

  1. I ate there in the late 1970s when working nearby as a reporter at the Columbus Enquirer. Top Hat’s chicken was spicy, greasy, fried crisp, and so good! I grew up on great southern cooking but their chicken amazed me. Couldn’t believe how spicy it was.

    Hard to duplicate at home—I think their deep fryer was a key.

  2. The original Top Hat Cafe opened in 1940 and was owned and operated by my grandfather Henry F. Jackson. The chicken recipe was created by his twin sister Mary Jackson Hudson. Unknown fact the fried gizzards were more popular than the chicken. The Top Hat & the chicken recipe were sold in 1945 & they opened the Mayfair Grill.

  3. I from Columbus. The Top Hat was my favorite restaurant. I mean FAVORITE!! Thank you so very much for the recipe!!

  4. I grew up in Columbus and moved to Atlanta in 1971. I use to drive back to Columbus just to get Top Hat chicken. There was and is nothing like it. I’m not a cook but I’m going to try following the recipe and make me some Top Hat chicken. It’s on if I get it right. “Top Hat Chicken #2” here I come.

  5. Having lived in Columbus most of my life, I can tell you, that was the best chicken I have ever tasted. I wish the original “Top Hat” was still around.

  6. I’m so Blessed to know the woman behind the chicken you all Love so much my Mother. My mother cooks it every now and then and it taste exactly like it did 20 years ago. There’s a few steps you all are leaving out but I can’t mention it thou! My mom is 82 years old and still cooks it the way she did then!!!!! It really makes me feel so good that people are bragging about chicken that my Mom never really got Credit for! Minnie Hubbard was the cook for over 20 years and was the head cook there from almost the first day it opened. She was the true genius behind the famous skin that no one can figure out how she gets it to be so Unique. once she left they tried to duplicate it but it was never there the same because they don’t know what she did to make that chicken taste so unique. Minnie Hubbard let’s give my Mother a shot out for her chicken which is the Absolute Best Chicken Ever!!!!!

    1. Arthur Hubbard, we need to talk! I’m Norman Holloway’s sister and we lived half way down the block when the Top Hat was on the corner of 9th Street & 5th Avenue. When I wasn’t old enough to go inside, Ms Minnie would bring my order to the back door and I’d give her my precious baby sitting money I’d earned, to get a breast sammich! LOL Can’t get anything for 50 cents anymore!

    2. I would pay good money for a double breast sandwich in a paper bag. Do I ever miss those days and that top hat chicken.

    3. Thanks for the history. I was hankering fur sum today. You know how that goes when you grow up eating something as good as what your momma made and then it is gone. God bless your momma and you too.

  7. Thank you for the recipe. I grew up on this chicken. It was also a favorite of the staff of the Medical Center Hospital, my first job. I was so disappointed to hear that the Cafe had closed. I last had chicken there in 1972.

  8. There will never be a piece of chicken to measure up to the Top Hat’s recipe! Wish I could purchase the place and re-open it for business! Any backers out there interested?

  9. I grew up in Columbus and am taking friend to our farm I would Love to place a large order to pick up Dec 17 late afternoon

  10. So many years of day trips from Albany to Columbus just to get chicken from Top Hat Cafe. Would take it to go down to the Chattahoochee riverside park. Best chicken EVER and great memories. Was heart-broken when closed. Can’t wait to make this in my own kitchen.

  11. So much of Columbus great restaurants have sadly vanished. I left Columbus in 83 but it will always be home. Depot Billiards Scamble Dogs, Mrs. Weavers Hamburger Steaks, Clearview Restaurant Steak Sandwich, Top Hat, Tomato Gravy,Buccaneer BBQ,there used to be a hot dog restaurant next to Mclhenny Elem School, Little Fotjan Oyster Bar both in 2 be Ave

  12. Thank you for the recipe. I loved Top Hat chicken as well as the vegetables they served. Those women could really cook!!

  13. My husband is from Columbus. He introduced me to TOP HAT the first time I accompanied him to the “home house” to “meet the family”. We have known each other for nearly 35 years, have been married since 1982, and have 2 “angels”). If he went to Columbus without us, he was expected return with at least four of the “greasy brown paper bag” dinners in tow. When we went back a few years ago, we decided to go to TOP HAT for lunch. My heart sank when we discovered that it was closed. It was like losing a friend.

  14. Top Hat Chicken is one of my many memories! The chicken was always delicious and hit the spot. I remember trying some chicken from a place on Broadway under the same name……it just wasn’t the same. I am going to give the above recipe a try………

  15. Here it is, the Holy Grail of Fried Chicken, Top Hat:

    Joseph S. H. wrote:
    With all of the discussion about the TOP HAT CHICKEN RECIPE Debbie F. asked
    me for it figured I would share it with everyone.

    THIS IS THE ACTUAL TOP HAT CHICKEN RECIPE, I worked with one of the founders
    daughters and talked her out of the recipe.Prep your chicken the night
    before 1/2 gal of water 1/4 cup salt submerge and allow to soak over night.
    6 cups all purpose flour, 1/2 cup cayenne pepper ,1/2 cup red pepper 1/8 cup
    salt add ice water until the consistency of pancake batter is reached..
    Prepare deep fryer with Crisco solid vegetable shortening heat to 375
    degrees. drop a small amount of batter into hot shortening and after it
    floats taste some like it hot. some like it hotter add equal parts of
    cayenne pepper and red pepper to increase the heat. Drain Chicken from salt
    bath and pat dry, dip in batter and submerge in hot shortening. Breasts 14
    min thighs 10 min legs 8 min wings 6 min., remove from shortening and allow
    to drain in a colander or on paper towels.

    And so it goes.

  16. 2 CUPS OF WATER
    2 CUPS OF FLOUR
    4 TEASPOONS OF SALT
    6 TABLESPOONS OF RED PEPPER
    REFRIGERATE CHICKEN IN BATTER 24 – 48 HOURS
    DEEP FRY ON 325 Degrees Until Done
    Enjoy!!!

    1. You, SIR, are the hero in my house this morning–and are truly APPRECIATED!

      Thank you, sincerely,
      Paul

  17. Top Hat was easily the best fried chicken I ever tasted. A recipe purporting to be the real deal is circulating around the internet. If you’re really keen let me know and I will divulge it. There is nothing better

    1. Would love to get the recipie. Personally, it was some of the best chicken I’ve ever eaten.

    2. Neal, I visited Columbus last week after being away for more than 15 years. Eating at Top Hat was high on my list, so imagine how disappointing it was to find the restaurant closed. Please send me the fried chicken recipe. Thanks

    3. Neal,

      Yes! Please share the recipe! I lived in Columbus, GA 1975 to 1978. My wife and I both ate a lot of that chicken…the best fried chicken there is (or was)!

      Paul

    4. I would be so happy to know the recipe. Every time my husband or I felt a cold coming on, he would drive to Top Hat and get 2 of the big sandwiches to burn the cold out of our system ( that is what he really believed ) He worked at Swift and he would order a whole order of chicken and bring it home sometimes after work. Why did they close when the food was so good with lots of returning customers?

    5. Neal, I to would love to have the recipe. I lived in Columbus Ga in the early 80’s and spent many a night driving down to Top Hat to get livers and gizzards… not to mention the chicken sandwich. I used to stop and get one to take to my Mom in Alabama when I was headed home.
      Thanks
      Kat

  18. Alas Top Hat, I knew ye well.

    Nothing better on a cold Winter’s night than a Top Hat sandwhich, big breast bones & all in two slices of loaf bread, spicy, greasy and gave that warm glowing feeling…

  19. I remember eating chicken at the Top Hat during the late 60’s and throughout the 1970’s after choir rehearsal with the FYO (Friendship Youth Organization) on Thursday nights. The Top Hat sat on the same lot as Friendship Baptist Church, the Rev. Willie H. Smith/ Rev. James Carter, back then. The Top Hat chicken was our version of Popeye’s chicken today with some extra spice to it – delicious! My mother told me that great aunt “Aunt Willie” worked at the Top Hat as a cook and took part in creating the spicy batter for their famous chicken.

    1. And don’t forget Sundays too Cathy
      I would walk over sometime between Sunday school and start of services and get a thigh and a leg…lol

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