Comforting Cafeterias, Diner Dreams and Long Lost Lunch Counters
By Max Eternity
It’s interesting how a simple gesture can bring up so many memories, like smelling and tasting a freshly percolated cup of coffee on a balmy afternoon.
I’m thinking of the social experience of eating out in Georgia 30 or 40 years ago. It was the end of an era, and I would be the last generation to experience it.
How much the world can change in a few decades, and how terribly unaware so many people are, particularly on the West coast where I live now, about the rich and super nuanced culture and history of the Southeast – especially as it relates to food and social expectations – the careful attention and devotion to the food experiences, the sights and sounds, service and hospitality that went into everyone’s daily life.
Yes, bad food does happen in the Southeast, but I’ve found it to be rare.
So why am I thinking of all this. Well, a couple of days ago my roommate’s coffeemaker died. He drinks many cups of coffee every day, so going without is never an option. Though before buying a new coffee maker, he remembered that a few years ago his mother had mailed him an old percolator from the East Coast. So, he dug it up and brewed a big pot of slowly percolated coffee on the stove top.
It was a small thing that should probably have been a non-event, but when he invited me into the kitchen and I saw the tiny glass dome on top of the pot gently bubbling with coffee, a flood of childhood memories rushed in.
You see, my father was a Southern chef, and my mom was known all over town for her pound cakes and pecan pies. And percolated coffee was how it was done if you wanted a cup of coffee done right to start the day or finish a great meal.
Once upon a time in the Southeast it could damage one’s status and reputation to serve a less than wonderful meal. Back then, a proper Southern meal almost always began with freshly-brewed sweet iced tea, with biscuits or cornbread and slices of super juicy vine ripe tomatoes. And assuredly, any meal worth talking about ended with a generous slice of homemade cake or pie, and percolated coffee.
If one served a perfect meal to the right guest, it could be the deciding factor in some very important social or business affairs. Sure, on this I may be exaggerating some, but not much.
Cooking in the Southeast, in those days and long before, meant bringing the wisdom of the elders to the dinner table. It had very little to do with expensive, or flamboyant ingredients, and everything to do with an experienced eye, warm sentiment, gratitude, joy, personal satisfaction, Southern heritage and family pride.
So naturally, serving good food in one’s home became equated with being morally upright – sensible, reliable and trustworthy.
As far as eating out, it essentially came down to 3 basic options: Cafeterias, Diners and Lunch Counters.
No doubt I’m the last generation to have first-hand experience with Southern lunch counters. These were places usually located inside (toward the back or in a wing of) drug stores and/or small locally owned department stores. Most often these shops had very old hardwood floors, high ceilings decorated with ornamental tin tiles, and slow moving ceiling fans throughout. You could do some shopping and get a hearty inexpensive bite to eat.
Some of these places even had separate ice cream or candy counters, or popcorn stands that also served cotton candy for 10 or 20 cents, or maybe a little more, but I don’t remember paying more than 30 cents for a treat back then.
Dunaway Drugs was walking distance from my house, and when I was around 14 I could go there with about 2 dollars – and eat a cheese burger with all the fixins, French fries and a tall thick milkshake served in a chilled glass, all of which was made to order and pretty darn tasty.
The lunch counter at Dunaway Drugs is long gone. It must have been one of hundreds of lunch counters that once existed in Georgia. In my neck of the woods, I remember them all closing one-by-one as a teenager.
Many diners survived the changing cultural and economic tides, and some actually expanded, like the Waffle House chain of restaurants.
Now at that time, diners were, generally speaking, usually very casual in atmosphere, offering counter and table service. Items like homemade mashed potatoes with steak and gravy, pork chops and other things beyond the burger and fry lunch counter staples were offered. The food at diners and lunch counters was always made-to-order and often breakfast would be served all day. Lunch counters were only open during department store business hours, sometimes closing by 3 pm, but diners might be open until late night or 24 hours. Still, no matter how large or small, the menus at these places almost never changed, except for daily specials, which were often the same each day of each week.
Cafeterias on the other hand had food offerings and menus that constantly change, with a handful of core “signature” items remaining the same year after year. Before I was born, and until I hit puberty, my father worked for Davis Brothers’ Cafeteria. They were one of the regional cafeteria chains that set the standard for a good Southern dining experience. And if you were Black and in the restaurant industry, to have a place like Davis Brothers’ on your resume essentially guaranteed you a job anywhere in the Southeast, and probably the whole East Coast.
Like so many African-Americans of that era, my dad had a 6th grade education, because Black schools in the South often only went to the 6th grade. To be an educated Black man in the South when he was a young man made one a prime target for lynching or some other type of targeted racial terror. (See my recent article: “Whiteness and the Bombing of Black Wall Street“)
I always remember the nice cars parked in the lot at Davis Brothers, which even as a kid told me exactly what kind of place it was, which is also to say that I never ate in the dining room. But a couple of times when my dad took me to work with him, I remember peeking out into the dining room before opening hours and gasping at how immaculate and perfectly organized the place was. I have never seen so many clean, perfectly-spaced tables in one place at one time in my life, and flowers on every table !!!
Cafeterias like Davis Brothers were places to go for a nice business lunch, to eat at directly after church, or to go sit and relax for an unhurried, comforting dinner any day of the week. There were always lots of home cooked vegetables, and of course macaroni and cheese. At any proper cafeteria, you could expect the selection to be overwhelming, and you could always count on a stunning display of desserts never to be forgotten any time soon.
Mary Macs is a legendary cafeteria in Atlanta. I ate there often in my early-twenties, and it was pretty good, but couldn’t match Davis Brothers.
Most, if not all, cafeterias were line-cafeterias, just like in schools and colleges, where you go down a line and look through the glass at the food – ordering each item individually as you move down to pay for you food. Piccadilly Cafeterias perfected this style of dining in the South.
I don’t recall eating at Morrisons, but I think my mom worked at one after finishing high school.
Smaller, independently owned cafeterias, like The Beautiful, located in Atlanta’s West End, were/are typically much better, and are often to be found in Black neighborhoods; having risen up out of necessity during the Jim Crow [segregated] South, when Blacks could not eat at lunch counters, diners or cafeterias visited by Whites.
All of these places were and are uniquely Southern, but it was most often the cafeterias that had the best coffee and dessert.
Who knew a percolated coffee from a stovetop in California could bring up so many fond Southern memories.