De La Fascination of the “Cafeteria”
Installment Plan #1
Alabama Cafeteria Esoteria & Viande et Trois
A stream of consciousness blog...
For years- well, really since I heard about Niki’s West in Birmingham, though, not so long ago- my interest has been highly picqued in the scene of cafeterias, meat & 3’s, and even the old automats of back in the day.
*I started channeling the past- and realized my first probably real cafeteria style dining experience was the VERY delicious Snead State College Cafeteria. They had the best chicken fingers, ever. The church that I was brought up at (Fairview United Methodist Church), would host the minister's "Pheasant Hunting Group, from South Dakota" each year, and the luncheon would be over at SSCC. I guess my first memory of that is around 1989, and they would always have the important large scale functions there it seems...the closest conference room may have been in Huntsville...I don't recall any hotels or creative spaces for even business groups. Now of course, Marshall County has exploded with all sorts of places to gather. Aside from the new sports complex in which they have to cancel Mom's Pickleball team rehearsals at the last minute due to stupid management.
**Sidepiece: The N.D. Pheasant Group would bring usually a large gaggle of folks from up there, to Northeast Alabama- it was a sight to behold, I think they must have been Mennonites or something...they would bring a singing group called the "Knock-abouts" or something like that- did they live in a van?-tres folksy, tres-not my style of music- and then some guy would come "sing" in the choir, but instead of singing, he whistled like a bird. Of course, the Albertvillians cried, actual tears...hopefully it was their valium head fog, because the sparrow whistle during the hymns was just too bizarre- even for me.
I believe that first visit to Niki's in 2016 caused me to flash back to my childhood, and spur a hobby of being interested in cafeterias and southern meat and 3 restaurants. In 2009, at the casino I worked at, the restaurant fascination bug bit me, they (the M Resort) had a delicious employee buffet de la blessings downstairs- and it was beautiful and tasty; I enjoyed so much going to that after I finished my shifts around 11 p.m. (from playing piano in the lounge) I was so ditty and blessed, and I was being so civilized with my tray. God bless. I was the angel of the cafeterium.
Picture this, HOT Alabama Summer 1994, has to be 101 at 10 a.m. in Albertville ( Hydrant Capital of the World! Also, my hometown) and here we are...traveling to Gadsden, Alabama…My first memory of what I considered as a child to be the epitome of sophistication in culinary situations was the glorious Morrison’s Cafeteria. There was one down there at the Gadsden Mall. My Aunt Dot (great-aunt) and Uncle LeRoy (pronounced: Lee-Roy, he was my great uncle) would take me to have lunch with them, they would have been in their late to mid-60's at the time. I would ride in the back of their always nice Cadillac Sedan DeVille….Uncle LeRoy would smoke those delicious cigarettes, and drive, and he was nervous and extremely high strung...possibly in retrospect he may have had crippling anxiety or bipolar disorder, he was interesting, but always acted like an old man. Aunt Dot (the fun aunt, who in retrospect was no doubt quite fond of the medicines)…well, I’m certain that she had diagrammed and studied the cycling seasonal selections on the Morrison's menus. No doubt, she called the restaurant to discuss at length of what they will have and how much it costs, and to also let them know she was highly asthmatic, and would run by McRae's first to try on perfumes that she needed to "test," but then we would be at lunch at such and such time, and no, they didn't take reservations. She ran the radio, and stirred her drink, no doubt to help her pills dissolve faster for her "arthritis," but she still had on fantastic little shoes, and a lovely bag, and no doubt matching pant-suit (the soft kind though)...
Morrisons had fresh flowers on each table back in the day (I'm thinking a carnation and some baby's breath), at the Gadsden Mall, and also Huntsville’s location at Madison Square Mall. I loved the façade-from inside the glorious 1980's malls, the passers by could look in the window at all the bougie people having their luncheon or supper. Blessed. Aunt Dot always made a big deal of choosing which dinner roll or “Mexican cornbread” near the end of the line of Morrison’s to choose (no doubt harassing the workers to know when it was made and why yellow cornmeal versus white, and jalapeno peppers versus pickled ones)….and it was just sort of an occasion.
Occasionally in the early 1990's Aunt Dot and I would frequent the Piccadilly, it was so nice with fountains and all at the Parkway City Mall (now Parkway Place)- once PCM changed to PP, sadly Piccadilly was changed into the classic hospital cafeteria, but with the textures de la geriatric care unit.
You can find some of the Morrison’s Recipes here: http://www.hungrybrowser.com/phaedrus/mpmorrisons.htm
I’m not a big fan of Macaronio and de la the Cheese. But, I swear Morrison’s and Piccadilly used a touch of that nutmeg.
I never experienced an automat. And nor have many people, but I did catch this incredible documentary: http://automatmovie.com/
As for the food at Morrison’s and Piccadilly, I don’t know that I ever had a favorite. I’m not sure that I really remember their offerings, I suppose because I wasn’t too interested in going at the times that I did go.
I had the Meat & 3, and Southern Dining Room, Epiphany after my first trip to the Colonnade in Atlanta. I first had supper there perhaps in 2015. What did it for me was their pink peppermint ice cream, the tomato aspic (resplendent with a dish of mayonnaise), and their fried chicken livers. Over the years, I have had most all their major dishes. The Post-COVID recouperation has done a number with some things there, and it just doesn’t seem like it has found it’s busy groove again…yet. Another attraction I have to the southern restaurant dining rooms, particularly the Colonnade, is the phenomena of such different and curious kinds of people gathering to have goodies. Atlanta seems very much to have a lot of “Daddies” and young companion situation, plenty of ladies, and post 30 -year-olds mixed with groups up to age 80. It’s a beautiful mix.
Mary Mac’s over there in Atlanta has always been tasty. While I like the traditions of the restaurant, and the glorious menu, I have never sat in an area in there that really felt like I was seen. They’re heavy handed with the salt, something that I love tremendously, alas, I’ve had a lot of that scene. The beef pot roast has always been good. And holy moly, what a bargain of praise- if you’ve never been you get some free pot liquor and cornbread or something, I guess. Maybe it’s me, but I swear they have those bug zapping lights inside- their hospitality could improve.
While Mary Mac’s, the Silver Skillet, and Colonnade, aren’t cafeterias- the sense of nostalgia, and the “seasoned” food are what attracts me. Such as a cafeteria, these establishments (as all should be) strive to give their patrons tasty dishes, and dishes that are heavy in tradition.
More CJC food stream of conscious restaurant obsession I loved the singing vegetables at EPCOT- Veggie Fruit Fruit. I genuflect at the glory that was 1980's Disney and EPCOT. Blessed# I love the food pyramid that was told to us about what to consume...thanks Kraft. The singing food- does life get any better?
Watch here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKUHjWTvgA0
Here is a list of my favorite southern restaurants in the tradition of the meat & 3, or the cafeteria style:
The Magnolia Room: https://www.magnoliaroomcafeteria.com/menu/main-menu/
The Colonnade Atlanta: https://www.thecolonnadeatlanta.com/
The Silver Skillet: https://www.thesilverskillet.com/
Niki’s West: https://www.nikiswest.com/
Mary Mac’s Tea Room: https://marymacs.com/
The Bright Star: https://thebrightstar.com/
Now, of course, Niki’s West is a Birmingham classic. There is also a Cedar House- my mama likes the lemon ice box pie….These are both cafeteria style. Niki’s to me is the absolute best- I love everything that I order there. The beef liver is good, so is the veal. I’d like to order off the menu one day…alas, I have several hundred more rounds on their steam tray line. Hallelujah.
There are dozens of other places I haven’t tried out yet- though, I wanted to get this entry started, so that I can have a future reference of establishments to visit, and keep track of. *Addendum: Lest we forget about "The Loveless Cafe" in Nashville, I've been several times. It is fun, the gimmick though has worn off for me. #Cameinahondaleftinachevycometiemyyallabowtie (say it fast- glossolalia- speaking in tongues if you will)
Every time that I go out of town, I make it a point to search out old school food establishments.
The Absolute Best Supreme Delight of Praise, is the Magnolia Room in Tucker, Georgia. First of all, everyone there is beyond friendly and nice. Everything that they cook is house-made, and old-school, seasoned, extremely fresh, and delicious. After reading the story of the Magnolia Room, I became obsessed. I’ve only been twice, though, I consider it the absolute best, because if their biography is true, and all their posts and pictures are as uplifting as they look, then this restaurant has succeeded in doing all the right things. Everyone is happy at the Magnolia Room. Also- they use some of the Morrison’s recipes- for those of you looking for recreations!
I live in the tender hamlet of Huntsville, Alabama…We used to have several meat and 3’s, and a smattering of cafeterias (from what I have been told)… I’m not really sure what we have now, but I know G’s Country Kitchen has been an obligatory stalwart of southern cooking. I used to go there A LOT. I hear Betty Mae’s is good, but I haven’t been in there. I miss Bubba’s downtown for lunch, I used to go a lot in the early 2000’s when I was in college. Also, the Clock Tower restaurant was so good as well. We have also those Blue Plate (well one now) restaurant/s, and Walton’s…both quite good. I like everything I have gotten at both those places. I know a lot of folks miss Victorias…I do now that it’s gone.
I have compiled some of the common things I have seen, and mainly it's a big list of things that I want right this very moment.
I guess most folks in the Meat and 3’s around here will have:
Meatloaf, Fried Chicken, Fried Catfish, a Hamburger, Chicken & Dumplings, Turkey or Chicken & Dressing
POSSIBLY: Chicken Livers, Spaghetti, Casseroles (Chicken, King Ranch, et-cetera), a thick stew with cornbread.
Sides: Always a green bean, a white bean or pinto, a pea- black eyed, or green, mashed potatoes (creamed potatoes), with or without gravy, hun? Cranberry sauce, purple hull peas, steamed cabbage, tomatoes and okra, cucumber salad, rice (with or without gravy, hun?), broccoli, broccoli and cheese casserole, French fries, hashbrown casserole, creamed corn, shoepeg corn, fried green tomatoes, broccoli salad, hushpuppies (and tartar sauce if you order the fish plate), sometimes you will find a sweet potato- but I don’t like that.
Again, there are several places even nearby that I want to visit- alas, I will, but I am only speaking of the places I have been to.
I really miss the Village or whatever it was called, on the square in Jacksonville, Alabama. Will try to find some portraits.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the joy and pride I felt the the Olive Tree Hotel in Jerusalem... and I swelled like a bloated hog with such joy and pride. I have never seen such a buffet spectacle- I was in Jerusalem possibly around 2015, and each evening the chef de cuisine of the hotel would welcome us into the restaurant but he, and the entire staff would gather at the buffet to smile and welcome everyone and quickly announce all the dishes that they prepared. "American Night" was a hit- the Israelis cooked their interpretations of our pitiful diet here, of course, theirs was much less processed. The spread was always beautiful- something that I find the cafeteria styles try to present, and that is always a special memory to me, how proud and dignified these food service workers were, and are. That is real quality- smiling staff, and happy staff, and goodies that are prepared with care and pride. I'm down!
Holy spirits! The delicious goodies of Praise!
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