Order Up

Southern diners cater to hungry patrons by serving tasty, home-style meals.
By Lisa Addison

Walk into just about any diner and your senses will come alive in the most delicious diet-can-wait way. Tantalizing aromas drift over the bustling dining area. A waitress asks “What can I get you hon” as other waitresses rush past balancing steaming plates of crispy fried chicken, creamy mashed potatoes and fluffy homemade biscuits. Cooks yell “order up” from the kitchen, and you just sigh happily, content that you are most definitely in the right place.

jukebox

Above: The retro-styled Juke Box Diner in Mandeville, La., serves hearty breakfast fare, plus burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs and creamy shakes. St. Tammany Parish Tourist and Convention Commission photo

Below: Brenda Placide, owner of Brenda’s Dine In and Take Out in New Iberia, La., offers a plate of her home cooking. Her gumbo is a favorite of actor Tommy Lee Jones. Iberia Parish Convention & Visitors Bureau photo

brenda

It’s been awhile since roadside diners, one of America’s most recognized icons, had their heyday but they are making a comeback across the country. Some are refurbished, prefabricated originals, others are simply styled after the 1940s and ‘50s diners. Still others are unassuming little places that serve hearty fare including juicy hamburgers and triple-decker sandwiches, along with chicken fried steaks, pork chops, and crispy fried chicken. Side dishes might include mashed potatoes and gravy, or vegetables of the day. Breakfast, plate lunches and soups of the day are also big hits.

Our sampling looks at selected home-style eateries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. Grab a road map and a napkin and dig in.

Good eats in cajun country

Step into Brenda’s Dine In and Take Out in New Iberia, La., (409 W. Pershing, 337-367-0868) and enjoy some of the best soul food in the region. Dig in to tender pork chops with sides of candied yams and red beans and rice topped with slices of succulent sausage.

Owner Brenda Placide operates the small wood-frame diner that seats about 20 patrons. Southern gospel music plays in the background, and a corner of the dining room is filled with photos depicting Placide’s family and highlights of their lives. But it’s food like crispy fried chicken, rice and gravy, smothered cabbage, and hard-crusted pork chops that keeps patrons returning to this popular yet unassuming diner.

“My mother taught me how to cook when I was very young,” Placide said. “She would say, ‘Pay attention! Pay attention!’ When I decided to open a restaurant she told me that it would only be successful if I was doing it for the love of cooking and not the money. She was right and I think my diner is popular because people know that cooking is my passion.”

Placide, who has been in business for 23 years, recalls actor Tommy Lee Jones dining at her restaurant when he was in the area making his recent movie, “In The Electric Mist,” which was filmed in New Iberia and surrounding communities.

“Oh, he came in every day for lunch and he would always order my sausage and chicken gumbo,” she said. “After the movie was done and he’d gone back to his home in San Antonio, I shipped him some containers of gumbo and he sure was happy about that.”

Placide said it wasn’t long after that when she heard from the actor’s personal chef who wanted to know if she would share her gumbo recipe.

“I did give her the recipe and I guess, now that she’s cooking it for him, he won’t be needing my gumbo anymore,” she said, laughing.

Where they always know your name

At the Blue & White Restaurant in Tunica, Miss., (1355 U.S. Highway 61 north, 662-363-1371), it’s the home-style cooking and friendly wait staff that draws in the crowds. But when it opened in 1937, the eatery was also a full-service travelers’ stop. The gas pumps may be long gone, but the Blue & White remains a diner that serves up just about every mouth-watering Southern favorite your taste buds could want.

For breakfast, order light-as-a-feather homemade biscuits, red-eye gravy, creamy grits, and country ham. The lunch buffet includes black-eyed peas, chicken and dumplings, creamed corn, turnip greens, scalloped potatoes, and more. Make sure to save some room for a Delta specialty, fried dill pickles, which come with a side of ranch dressing for dipping.

Down-home diner, extensive menu

Stroll into The Diner in Cabot, Ark., (3286 S. Second St., suite B, 501-941-0904) and your only dilemma will be trying to decide what to order. This comfortable, retro-styled eatery has plenty of seating and provides the nostalgia factor with vinyl records on the wall, as well as country collectibles and replicas of old beverage signs.

Hungry patrons could go for the Big Daddy Breakfast, which includes bacon or sausage, two eggs, grits or hashed browns and a biscuit with plain or sausage gravy. There are many other choices for breakfast, including pancakes, several egg specials, and the popular bacon, egg and cheese biscuit.

The three-egg omelet is certainly filling with its choices of ham, bacon, sausage, green peppers, onions, mushrooms, salsa or chili. According to Ron Ransom, owner and manager of The Diner, “We have the best pancakes west of the Mississippi. We’ve got buttermilk, chocolate chip, short stacks, pancakes topped with whipped cream and strawberries, whatever you want in a pancake.”

There are also plenty of lunch specials, including The Diner Dog, a hot dog loaded with cheese, coleslaw, and onions. Ransom also recommends the catfish plate.

Remembering the past

You won’t go hungry at The Jukebox Diner, a 1950s-themed eatery in Mandeville, La., (1705 Highway 59, Suite 9, 985- 951-7131, www.thejukeboxdiner.net). Family-owned and operated, there’s a relaxed vibe at The Jukebox Diner where patrons enjoy their meals while sitting on retro stools and listening to ‘50s music from a jukebox.

The Jukebox Diner specializes in hamburgers. A favorite is the Jukebox Burger, an eight-ounce juicy hamburger loaded with the works. Sandwiches, old-fashioned malts and favorite breakfast items–everything from omelets and French toast to breakfast burritos and fluffy homemade biscuits–are also hits. For sides, onion rings, Buffalo wings or sweet potato fries can fill the bill. Among the most popular soups of the day are creamy seafood bisque and zesty tortilla soup.

It’s been more than 135 years since the diner made its debut and it’s likely that the homey restaurants will be around for many years to come. That’s a good thing for hungry folks seeking tasty, homemade meals with generous servings of nostalgia on the side.

Lisa Addison is a new contributor from Lake Charles, La.

Jul/Aug 2009 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

You can find our Reviews from the Road restaurant features.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. List of offices

Order free information about Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.


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