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The best diner in the South

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  • Chef John Feb 12, 2000 01:16 AM
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I want to know your opinion on THE best diner in the South. In order to qualify as a diner, 1 person can have lunch (meat, veggies, bread & drink) for less than $10. My vote goes to Buntyn's in Memphis, TN. Any one care to weigh in?

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  1. I'm not sure what we're talking about here....do you mean traditional American short-order diners with southern accoutrements (grits, tea, etc), or do you mean diners serving down-home southern cooking (in which case why restrict to diners, which are, in that context, more an architectural category than anything else...?)

    There are a bunch of diners in NYC that serve chinese food or indian food, and some of them are surprisingly good. but it's not a "category" to judge. I mean, if you're NOT going to judge diners on milkshakes, eggs, and burgers, then, again, you're just talking architecture. And if you ARE talking milkshakes, eggs, and burgers....well, there's a LOT better stuff to eat down there (at similar price and functionality), so it hardly seems worth consideration...? Maybe I'm missing the point here...

    ciao

    5 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      A Chinese Diner!!!!! Egads Man, What are you talking about? Diners serve sweet tea, lemon pie, fried chicken.....

      1. re: Chef John

        hee hee.

        "Diners serve sweet tea, lemon pie, fried chicken....."

        .but that's just exactly what I mean. For that kind of fare down there, why restrict your circles to diners? There are other kinds of places serving the same dishes at same price range equally well.

        Up here in the north, the diners (other than the chinese and indian ones!) serve a certain specific cuisine (burgers, eggs, and pie) you can't easily find as good elsewhere (though other than VT and NH, it's damnably hard to find that stuff consistently good even in diners!)

        1. re: Jim Leff

          I'm with Jim Leff on this one. Perhaps the query could be subdivided: best meat n three restaurant, best chicken shack, etc., and even with such subdivisions, the idea of one "best" is a bit farfetched. I always thought that the ratings emploted by Vince Staten in the book Real Barbecue were apt. His highest praise was "As Good As I've Ever Had," and that's good enough for me.

          1. re: Jim Leff

            OK...We will subdivide diners into 4 sets with each set having no less than 2 subsets. The sets will be Architecture (free standing & non free standing), Cheap Eats (Classic American South & other cuisines), Frozen Dairy Products (shakes, malts, sodas & such; and scooped ice cream offerings i.e. Sundaes and splits)and finally Black & White Photo Collection (framed & unframed; with 2 further subsets of photo subject being political or non-political celebrity. This subset can be further broken down into signed & unsigned.). So now would anyone like to weigh in on this?

            1. re: Chef John

              (LOL)

      2. Biggie's in Grafton WV. French fries cut from fresh
        spuds and deep fried to perfection. What my 16 year
        described as "the best burger in my life." Flirty
        waitresses. A cranky owner named Eddie. A newspaper lending rack that features the Star and the Enquirer. And, carhops when the weather is warm.
        Pure bliss.

        1. Buntyn's is more what I'd term a "blue plate special" kind of place. Another similar one in Memphis is Audubon Cafe; we like the food there better. As for the best in that category, many small towns in Mississippi have mom and pop places that puts Buntyn to shame.

          32 Replies
          1. re: SallyW

            "many small towns in Mississippi have mom and pop places that puts Buntyn to shame"

            PLEASE TELL US ABOUT THEM!

            Pardon my eagerness, Sally, but I never hear anybody talking or writing about small town Mississippi food, and I've always suspected there's amazing treasure to be found there. Can you clue us in on a few? Or, in general, how to pick out the good ones?

            Oh, boy! Now we're really talking about something GOOD!

            1. re: Jim Leff

              There's a cool little book, "Only in Mississippi" by Lorraine Redd (can order it on Amazon). Has a lot of obscure restaurants, plus folk artists, etc.

              1. re: Jim Leff

                You caught me off-guard with that one. Just in our area of North Mississippi, in Corinth there is a mom and pop place named "Martha's Menu" which offers a daily selection of two or three meats and veggies. My only criticism of this place is that sometimes green veggies aren't very abundant.

                Then there's Abe's Grill, a breakfast place primarily. It's more or less a diner, with nice homemade biscuits, fried tenderloin, and gravy.

                In Iuka, a semi-upscale place, Cafe Memories, has delightful daily surprises, plus the standard sandwich fare. Not really a mom and pop place, but it is small and locally owned.

                I'll put my thinking cap on and let you know of some others soon.

                1. re: SallyW

                  Sally, y'know, if I told you about little Indonesian dessert shacks under the subway where expat Indonesian intellectuals hung out and read Indonesian magazines and sipped tapioca drinks, you'd probably find the whole notion very romantic.

                  For me, that's just everyday stuff. But the idea of little joints in small town Mississippi doing superb frying and baking is EXCITING. It's so outside my normal experience, and I LOVE that kind of food.

                  You know, many "experts" consider French, Italian, and Chinese (and maybe Thai) to be the "best" cuisines (whatever "best" means). But I think that the froufrou types who say stuff like that could resist cassoulet, risotto, or chow fun a LOT more easily than they could a skillet of hot fresh corn bread. Wave all four in front of their face and see which one makes their eyes light up...

                  Having someone come in and talk Mississippi small town food here on our Yankee-dominated site is a kick for me that exceeds even the extremely useful, interesting, and rare discussion of North Korean dumplings we had a few months ago. This is an event!

                  More details, please!

                  ciao

                  1. re: Jim Lef
                    s
                    Susan Thomsen

                    Jim, even though I haven't been in years and years, the Round Table Restaurant at the Mendenhall Hotel at has been very, very good. Soooo much classic Southern food (squash casserole, baked ham, and so on) to choose from--it all goes by on a lazy Susan. Mendenhall is a small town south of Jackson; the Sterns have written about this place.

                    Susan

                    1. re: Susan Thomsen

                      what's squash casserole like? I've never heard of it.

                      1. re: Jim Leff
                        s
                        Sally Wallace

                        Hope it's not in bad form to include a recipe here, since words seemed inadequate to describe the dish.

                        Squash casserole is, IMHO, the best way to eat squash. It's prepared by cooking either yellow squash or zucchini, or both, then mixing with various ingredients, topping with something crunchy, and baking until it's bubbly and browned. Almost ANYTHING bubbly and browned has to be good!

                        This is my favorite squash casserole recipe.

                        6 medium yellow summer squash, sliced and cooked
                        2 tablespoons onion, grated
                        2 tablespoons oleo
                        1 tablespoon Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce
                        1 teaspoon prepared mustard (just for color, I think)
                        1/2 cup cheese, grated (optional)
                        8 saltine crackers, crumbled
                        Salt and pepper (liberal grinding of pepper)

                        Drain squash, mash, and add remaining ingredients, except for 1/2 of the cracker crumbs.

                        Pour into greased casserole and top with other half of the crumbs. Dot with butter.

                        Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, or until bubbly.

                        1. re: Sally Wallace

                          Sally, I really like the idea of grating the onions. That's the most important ingredient besides the squash. Around here (Oklahoma, not really the south) people have lately been using butter crackers like Ritz or even chicken-n-a-biskit for the saltines. I was totally susprised when I asked for a recipe at a potluck and chicken-n-a-biskit was the secret ingredient.

                          The best squash casserole I've ever had in my life was a side dish at a luncheonette counter- let's see -we left Sanford NC before dawn, headed for Princeton, so wherever we'd have had lunch -Virginia? (factoring in a flat tire). They overheard us going on & on about it and brought us each a soup bowl full.

                          1. re: Betty

                            The first time I willingly ate squash casserole was in Aliceville, AL, at a restaurant located in a big, old house. I wonder if that place is still around, and if the food is still scrumptious! Now that's a place Jim would enjoy!

                            1. re: SallyW

                              hi Sally, yes, it is still around. It is called The Plantation House. I believe there are new owners. I could be mistaken as it has been awhile since I was last there. They have a seafood buffet on Friday nights too.

                              1. re: cricket2

                                I'm glad that you revived this really old thread- hope that it gets some new life! I do the "meat and three" thing all around Mississippi and have a few favorites if there is any interest...

                          2. re: Sally Wallace
                            s
                            Sue Cummings

                            Sally, this is a great recipe. I've made it twice so far. The first time I substituted zucchini for yellow squash. The second time I used a mix of the two squashes.

                            1. re: Sue Cummings

                              Sue, did you use cheese and if so, what kind?

                              1. re: efdee
                                s
                                Sue Cummings

                                I used grated Colby cheese.

                              2. re: Sue Cummings

                                We like it with both kinds too, and sometimes I'll add some bell pepper to give it a little more zing, or pimento to add another bit of color. Drop me a note if you want to give my stuffed squash a try!

                              3. re: Sally Wallace

                                I'm several years behind reading this post, but if anyone is scouring old posts like me...We have always put crumbled bacon in ours - cook it until hard and crispy, crumble in the mix and bake. It's always better with a little pig!!

                                1. re: Sally Wallace

                                  Hate to ask for clarification on a ten-year-old post, but just in case...by "yellow summer squash" do you mean what we here in SW Ohio think of as "like zucchini, but yellow" ?

                                  1. re: valereee

                                    Yes.

                                    Mrs. Sippi always tells the guy in the produce department it's "Not yella zucchini, it's yella crook neck squash."

                                    DT

                                    1. re: Davwud

                                      LOL! Thanks!

                                    2. re: valereee

                                      yellow crookneck or summer squash...not quite zucchini, but in the same family

                                2. re: Susan Thomsen

                                  Sadly, the Revolving Table Restaurant in Mendenhall has been closed for several years. I had many a fine meal there.

                                  Susan (a different Susan)

                                  1. re: Susan Thomsen

                                    I agree with you this place not only has the best food it also is an experience of a lifetime. Dinning with complete stangers can always be an interesting experience. The Revolving Table has been closed for a few years, but the Dinner Bell in McComb has serves food in the same way that the food is just as good or better.

                                  2. re: Jim Lef

                                    Jim, I'd take the chow fun over the cornbread. But I now live in New Orleans (ex-pat Los Angeleno) and make and have access to good cornbread all the time, and I miss chow fun.

                                    By the way, you would think there would be a lot of those Southern diner or mom and pop places here in NO, but that Southern meat-and-three, or soul food, style doesn't exist in this area. Most restaurants touted as serving "soul food" have the same fried shrimp, catfish, po-boys, gumbo, jambalaya, etc. as every other local restaurant. Also, you don't get hush puppies in New Orleans.

                                    1. re: Sarah

                                      Yeah, for those who live down there, I can see why cornbread would have less attraction. I guess that's one reason my eyes lit up when we started talking about obscure small town Mississippi food. I bet I could get you excited about Chinatown a lot more easily than I could a native New Yorker...


                                      " Most restaurants touted as serving "soul food" have the same fried shrimp, catfish, po-boys, gumbo, jambalaya, etc. as every other local restaurant"

                                      even in the eastern and northern parts of the state?

                                      1. re: Jim Leff

                                        Maybe not in New Orleans, but the "meat and three" approach is the heart and soul of down-home Cajun cooking, and you can find great examples of this blue plate special sort of meal all over southwestern Louisiana.

                                        I'm heading down to Cajun country again in March, and will report!

                                        1. re: Jim Leff

                                          No, I was just talking about New Orleans. We haven't had a chance to explore the northern and eastern parts of Louisiana yet. I'm simply surprised at the lack of what I think of as "soul food" here because the city has an enormous African-American population, and I was expecting soul food heaven. I've been given a couple of leads that I haven't tried out, so there may be a few around here somewhere.

                                          1. re: Sarah
                                            r
                                            Rachel Perlow

                                            The Food Network aired a "Legendary Hangouts" episode on New Orleans a couple months ago. I checked the website and it hasn't aired recently, so there's no info available at this time. But, I remember them going to a place that definitely seemed to be in the soul food category. I'll keep my eye out for that show to air again. It looked REAL downhome, but was famous for serving all the black celebrities that came to town during segregation.

                                            Actually, I think I'm confusing two restaurants: the famous black celebrity serving place was creole, but very attractive, but there was another place, smaller, unrefined with the fabulous soul food.

                                            Did anybody else see this show and take notes???

                                            1. re: Rachel Perlow

                                              Most likely, the famous black celebrity place was Dooky Chase's. That falls into my category of "New Orleans food" (gumbo, shrimp, jambalaya . . .) I'd be curious to know what the other one was. If it was Eddie's, it has apparently seen better days. I had a very disappointing meal at the famous Eddie's, with crunchy underdone rice, no cornbread, off-flavor oil-fried chicken. The leads I haven't tried yet are Henry's, Two Sisters' Kitchen, and Williams Restaurant.

                                              1. re: Sarah

                                                Do try Willie Mae's, right behind Dookie Chase, which serves excellent fried chicken, pork chops, butter beans, greens, smothered steaks . . . soul food. One hundred percent. Oh my.

                                                1. re: Sarah

                                                  When Eddie was alive and in the kitchen, Eddie's was my favorite restaurant in New Orleans bar none. I've never had gumbo remotely as good; the bread pudding was the best in New Orleans; and the oyster stuffing accompanying the excellent pork chops was a gift from above.

                                                  The grandmommy of all soul food places in New Orleans, Chez Helene, is no more, so I guess Dooky is the matriarch by default. I never got to Chez Helene, but I regret that I missed it, as it inspired one of my favorite television shows of all times, Frank's Place.

                                                  1. re: Sarah

                                                    Another place to check out (I haven't been yet) for soul food is Dunbar's.

                                                  2. re: Rachel Perlow

                                                    A few of the restaurants were Brennan's, Galatoire's, Antoine's and the Commander's Palace. I have been to N.O. many many times, there are small places I love and the places that are more for tourists. But a few of those are great as well, one of my favorites esp this time of year is Maspero's across from the Jackson Brewery. The name is Pierre Masperos one of oldest in the French Quarter, having been erected in 1788 by Don Juan Paillet. The history of the building can be found if you search the restruant. MY favorite is the french onion soup, with a sandwich. Which is too big for me alone to eat I usually split it with someone, or get it in a togo box and give to someone.(Usually on the street) ITS not fancy by no means and usually packed during busy times. BUT I love it. Coop's place is good to, its on the back side of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville.
                                                    French Market Restaurant & Bar is good as well , the pasta dishes are huge. And if your looking for more top of the line but not black tie. I would say visit Jacques-Imo's, as well as Nola's. There are too many restaurants there for me to talk about maybe another column sometimes. Happy Eating !

                                    2. I've already reviewed this spot, so I'll only mention the highlights here. The Kountry Kitchen in Columbus, MS gets my vote. I'm there every Thursday I am in town for fried chicken, squash dressing, mashed potatoes w/ gravy, chocolate chip pecan pie and sweet tea. Sweet tea is essential at any true soul food establishment.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: Peter Imes

                                        As far as meat and threes go, my votes would go to Lizard's Thicket in Columbia, South Carolina, Prossers in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina and probably just about any roadside cinderblock restaurant that serves a meat and three.

                                        The very best however is SeeWees in Awendaw, South Carolina between McClellanville South Carolina and Charleston (Mt. Pleasant) South Carolina. It is a seafood meat and three with great prices.

                                        1. re: BlueHerons

                                          SeeWee is good. Some of the best I've found in SC, at least. Still, my ALL-TIME favorite is listed below...

                                      2. The Market Diner in Thomasville, GA. Hands down the best homestyle country cookin' you'll find at any place with "diner" in its title, or otherwise for that matter. Everything homemade, nothing from cans, all of it insanely delicious. Their all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at $6 (including beverage) is probably the best deal in the country.

                                        -----
                                        Market Diner Restaurant
                                        502 Smith Ave, Thomasville, GA 31792

                                        1. I would agree with you about Buntyn being a great Southern food place (probably the Sterns' favorite place in the entire South) and I used to eat there regularly when I had a girlfriend in Memphis, but why would you call it a diner? Is it in the same old place on Southern Ave next to the railroad tracks? Back then it didn't remotely resemble what people think of as a diner, so I agree with Jim that we shouldn't limit it to just architectural diners per se. It used to be the only MUST VISIT place if I could only eat once in Memphis. And that homemade banana pudding.......

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: KyMikey

                                            I think Buntyn's used to be much better years ago - every time I went while I lived in Memphis, it just tasted like everything was out of a can. Those rolls were really good, though.

                                            1. re: gritsandsoul

                                              I went back in the late 90's when Mrs. Sippi and I were dating. I remember the food being good but not great. The thing was, the rolls were amazing.

                                              I've heard it's now closed. Is this true??

                                              DT

                                          2. A diner to me is a sit-down restaurant in a prefabricated "building" (sometimes mobile, usually coated in polished metal) that usually serves American-style breakfast and homestyle lunch and dinners (ex. meatloaf, turkey club, roast chicken dinner, etc.). Sometimes they have a few ethnic items on the menu (ex. spinach pie, greek salad, etc.). That being said, I have yet to see a diner in the South. I have only been here for 2.5 years.

                                            See: http://www.roadfood.com/Reviews/Overv...

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: joshuahmel

                                              To me, a diner is not necessarily defined by the structure. Its the food that defines it, and I agree with your examples. Its also about being a casual place, usually with a counter for solo eaters. Of course, a true diner building as you describe is a nice bonus, but you are correct, there aren't many of those in the South. There is one in Morehead City, NC, and I'm sure there are others here and there. There are lots of diners in the South that aren't housed in "diner buildings" however.

                                            2. um...wow...can you narrow it down?

                                              the south is pretty durn big

                                              1. I would like to add two meat and three places that are must haves in the South.

                                                1) H&H in downtown Macon, Ga. Best fried chicken I have ever tasted and wonderful sides. The woman who runs it was the road cook for the Doobie Brothers. Highly recommend if you're heading down 75 to FLA.

                                                2) Three (or is it Two) Sisters in downtown Jackson, MS. It is more of a lunch buffet but it has excellent food and fantastic bread pudding.

                                                Hope that helps and I will continue to think up more as I go.

                                                Samlev

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: samlev

                                                  It is Two Sisters. I am not a big fan of "THE" buffet. For my meat and three fix in Jackson, I go to The Mayflower, The Elite, or Scrooge's. The Mayflower certainly falls into the diner category.

                                                  1. re: Sister Sue

                                                    Wade's in Spartanburg, SC. Voted better than the Dillard House in Dillard, Ga and The Lady and Sons (Paula Deen) in Savannah. Last time we went (on a Thursday night) there must have been 100 people in line in front of us but we were seated in less than 30 minutes. Just plain old GOOD. They have a buffet for lunch.

                                                    1. re: tarmstro

                                                      Some great diners in Mississippi are Blue Levee, Rosedale, MS, Crystal Grill, Greenwood, MS, Ground Zero, Clarksdale, MS, Ramon's, Clarksdale, MS. Ranchero, Clarksdale, MS, Ajax, Oxford, MS, Big Apple Inn, Jackson, MS, Southern Grill, Cleveland, MS, Airport Grocery, Cleveland, MS, Binke's Restaurant, Meridian, MS, Mammy's Cupboard, Natchez and Ole Country Store, Lorman, MS.

                                                2. Try the Colonnade on Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta. Best in class in my book. Check it out at:

                                                  http://www.colonnadeatl.com/

                                                  1. Having grown up in New England but being "southern born" (Mississippi) and having lived in Richmond VA for most of my adult life, I have a pretty good take on both food up North and Southern fare as well. That said, I can honestly say that "real" diners to me are those found from Deleware and to the North. The South just doesn't have these types of places that are so plentiful up North. So, for Richmond, the only places I can consider remoaely close would be Perly's, Millies, Dairy Bar, and Karen's. Diners are, to me places that have desserts in a big display case, serve good cheap food, don't have any pretense and are not trendy. They should serve breakfast all day or at least 7 days a week and have great sweet tea,biscuits, grits etc

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: slcraft

                                                      Now wait a minute- I might agree with you about there not being many real diners in the South.

                                                      But your description of them- places that have desserts in big display cases, serve breakfast all day, 7 days a week, and have great sweet tea, biscuits and grits.... well, you have pretty much described 3/4s of the non-chain restaurants in the South and about 1/2 the chains if you include Huddle House and Waffle House.

                                                      Can you even *get* sweet tea and grits in Delaware and points north?

                                                      1. re: Clarkafella

                                                        Re the "sweet tea" question, I can tell you that you'd better not ask for it north of the Mason-Dixon line, they will look at you blankly! and even in DC I grew up in the 50's never hearing the term! You get iced tea and put some sugar in it if you want, just like coffee.
                                                        Only the bottled tea craze is changing that.

                                                    2. Before I moved from there 30 years ago, I loved a diner on Union Street in Memphis. I don't know if it is still there. I think the name was the Cupboard. NO Meat and Threes out here in California that I can find. More's the pity. Maybe they are located only as far West as Iowa!

                                                      1. Hmm, I know of some of the better greasy spoons in Tampa...
                                                        There's Pop n' Sons,
                                                        www.popnsons.com
                                                        Also Mom's Place is literally next door to them.

                                                        And just a few miles away from them is Nicko's Fine Foods.
                                                        While on tour, Elvis ate at Nicko's back in the 1950's, and you too can sit at the very booth he sat in.

                                                        1. No, No, No, the best diner in the South is:

                                                          Weaver D's

                                                          1016 East Broad St.

                                                          Athens, GA 30601

                                                          (706) 353-7797

                                                          Open Mon-Sat 11am - 6pm

                                                          The is the best southern style home cooking I have found anywhere. I used to live in Atlanta and Tampa. This place has the old Cleve's from Atlanta and Pop n' Sons (Mom's too) from Tampa beat hands down.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: dfayathens

                                                            For a minute I thought you meant Weavers in London, Ky. We visited and thought it was great.

                                                            DT
                                                            www.davwudsfoodcourt.blogspot.com