Loading...
 

From collards to cobbler

A yearning for the Southern lunch takes us back to Mary Mac's, and beyond

During a recent visit to Charlotte, I stopped for a quick meal at a 24-hour diner, Skyland Family Restaurant. With a bizarre decor that mixes red neon and Corinthian columns — the owners appear to be Greek — Skyland serves classic meat-and-two-vegetable specials, as well as a huge menu of other items.

??
Maybe it was the nostalgia of crossing the Catawba River, where my family used to spend many Saturday afternoons picnicking on my mother's classic Southern cooking. But the meal at Skyland blew me away. Salisbury steak in a flavorful, rich gravy, with fresh collards and black-eyed peas cost next to nothing. I was reminded a bit of the Majestic Diner 20 years ago and wondered what has happened to such cooking in Atlanta. So I revisited some of our own "meat-and-two (or three)" spots last week. I figure I gained about five pounds in this adventure and I do not recommend you people at home eat six meals in such places in one week unless you're going to spend your off hours on a stationary bike.

??
First stop was the city's best-known such restaurant, Mary Mac's Tea Room (224 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-876-1800). The legendary restaurant was opened in 1945 by Mary McKinsey, who sold it to Margaret Lupo in the early '60s. Ms. Lupo, whose bold personality turned the restaurant into an international celebrity magnet, retired in 1994. The current owner is John Ferrell.

??
Visits in recent years have disappointed me, but I had a great experience last week. The restaurant, whose walls are covered with pictures of celebrities, was humming on a weeknight with the usual diverse crowd. The high proportion of African-American diners brought a question to my mind — whether there's still a distinction between classic soul food and so-called blue-eyed soul food. If there is, I think it's blurring rapidly, as visits to several other restaurants demonstrated.

??
Service remains the same as always at Mary Mac's: You write your own order and you hand it to a server, most of whom seem to have worked there a long time.

??
"If you like fried food, you'll like Mary Mac's," Wayne said soon after we sat down. All of the appetizers — from crawfish to okra — are fried. We skipped that category. Wayne ordered a pear salad that was the only thing I found unpleasant, although I recognize its universal appeal to Southerners who grew up eating the dish at church suppers. You get your canned pears with shredded, grated cheese and too much mayo.

??
I ordered a cup of vegetable soup — a classically Southern version, tomatoey and a bit sweet, chock full of okra. It was good with the little corn muffins in the bread basket, which, by the way, is dangerously addictive because of its chewy cinnamon rolls and fluffy yeast rolls. We went through two baskets before our entrees arrived.

??
Of course, we both ordered fried food: four pieces of chicken for me and chicken livers for Wayne. He paid them the ultimate compliment by saying they were better than the Colonnade's. I tend to agree. They were crispy but fully retained their creamy texture.

??
My fried chicken was also very good. Well, one piece, half a breast apparently substituting for a thigh, was inexplicably overcooked and dry. But the rest, including a whole breast, was moist under a crackly, batter-fried skin. Our server insisted the chicken is cooked in vegetable oil but I'm betting some bacon is thrown into the fryer like my mother used to do to season it.

??
Vegetables were mainly good. My collards were just oily enough but my Hoppin' John (black-eyed peas mixed with rice) was bland. Wayne's fried okra was the best vegetable — lightly battered and not overcooked, as it usually is around town. Yes, you could taste the okra. Mac and cheese was the usual.

??
We were way too full for dessert but, as every Atlantan knows, the peanut butter pie is most people's favorite.

??
Smaller and cheaper

??
"What? You want two?" the woman at Quinnie's BBQ (2860 Lavista Road, 404-728-8763) exclaimed when I ordered two fried pork chops in the cafeteria-style line of the soul-food shop.

??
I looked down and saw that the chops were enormous. "Oh, you're right; one will be plenty," I said.

??
"I should think so!" she replied. I ordered collards, squash casserole and corn bread for my sides. Then I ordered peach cobbler.

??
"You weren't planning to eat two pork chops and peach cobbler, were you?" the woman asked, incredulous.

??
I waddled to my table feeling like my mother's eyes were riveted on the back of my head. People walked by with vegetable-only plates.

??
Honestly, Quinnie's is the best. The pork chop was huge, succulent and coated in crispy batter. There's nothing healthy about it, but Quinnie's fame is partly reliant on the fact that she cooks her vegetables without meat — meaning they are free of fat.

??
The difference is amazing. The squash casserole probably was the best vegetable I ate in my week of dining. I do love collards cooked with pork, but Quinnie's have a purer flavor.

??
As for the peach cobbler: The serving was indeed enormous. I managed to eat every drop, though.

??
For the money, the Collard Green Café (2566 Shallowford Road, 404-634-3440) is your best bet. For $4.99 you get a meat, two vegetables, corn bread, a beverage and dessert.

??
The fried chicken was flawless, as was the dense meatloaf, even with its lividly red, ketchupy topping.

??
"You won't find a can opener in our kitchen," a sign says. Indeed, all the vegetables I sampled — steamed okra, squash with onions, black-eyed peas and collards — were fresh and "cooked down." The peach cobbler was super-sweet with a well-browned crust.

??
Other recommended spots I visited include Thelma's Kitchen (302 Auburn Ave., 404-688-5855), Louise's (428 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-817-9513) and Son's Place (100 Hurt St., 404-581-0530).

??
A warning: You should call ahead before visiting any of these restaurants (except Mary Mac's). Hours tend to be irregular. Some are open for dinner and some are not.



More By This Writer

Article

Wednesday August 5, 2020 04:44 pm EDT
It was mid-July and I had not eaten in a restaurant in four months — not even outdoors. The idea was terrifying. I imagined people huddled on crowded patios, inhaling and exhaling the coronavirus like smoke in a hookah lounge. They would all be 23 and drunk, flaunting their dolphinlike lungs and uncreased skin, or they would be escapees from nursing homes blowing kisses through fingers coated... | more...

Article

Tuesday June 30, 2020 11:45 am EDT
Old times there must be forgotten | more...

Article

Thursday June 4, 2020 11:14 am EDT
But the reward is the same | more...

Article

Friday May 1, 2020 12:09 am EDT
Jarrett Stieber ‘radically’ transforms the dining experience | more...

Article

Monday April 6, 2020 11:32 am EDT
It’s hard to write enthusiastically about restaurants when they’ve become precarious stages for a public health drama. As I am writing this, Mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered New York City restaurants and bars to close and, just as I turn this in, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has mandated the same for Atlanta. The coronavirus pandemic is causing mass hysteria unlike any most Americans have seen... | more...
Search for more by Cliff Bostock

[Admin link: From collards to cobbler]