Haute cuisine Southern style

SUN JOURNAL

Cafeteria: The Belle Meade Buffet has kept Nashville diners happy for nearly 40 years with a simple recipe: plenty of good food and friendly service.

March 14, 2000|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There is nothing nouveau, surprising, ethnic, exotic or hip about this restaurant. It is in a strip shopping mall near an Office Depot and a CVS. It has a yellow and green light-up sign. The menu -- and the recipes, for that matter -- have hardly changed in nearly 40 years. Think roast pork, mashed potatoes, stewed tomatoes and fried okra.

But try driving near the Belle Meade Buffet at mealtime and you'll get stuck in traffic. There's already a line when the doors open for the evening meal at 4: 20. The restaurant feeds more than 1,000 people a day, a number of them five or six days a week.

"It's food that you're not going to see on the cover of a food magazine or cooked by a celebrity chef on the food channel," says food writer Michael Stern, who raved about the cafeteria in a 1987 review written with his wife, Jane. "It's only the food elite who worry about how trendy the food they eat is. Most people want a square meal, and that's what the Belle Meade is famous for."

A culinary throwback

Long after cafeterias have faded from popularity elsewhere, the Belle Meade continues to draw crowds -- retirees, families, country music stars. With its Chippendale-style chairs, brass chandeliers, Williamsburg decor and waiters who carry customers' trays, the Belle Meade shows little interest in embracing modern life.

What it offers instead are employees who greet you by name and ask how you are. And a trip back to the big Southern supper that grandmother used to serve after church, lovingly displayed in a long, steaming row.

The place has rules: The vegetables are fresh, all bread and desserts are made from scratch, and fish is hand-cut and hand-breaded each morning.

It has routine. A local farmer grows 15 acres of squash just for the cafeteria. Another sets aside 500 stakes of tomatoes, and the farmers bring their fresh produce right to the back door. Several of the cooks are children of the cooks from the cafeteria's opening in 1961. The clientele, too, is in its second and third generation.

Patrons have little tolerance for change. When floods wiped out the Florida squash crop a few years ago, the Belle Meade tried to substitute frozen squash. "Our customers were about to run us off," says David Kendall, the Belle Meade's founder. He is now semi-retired -- his son, Henry, has taken over as co-owner -- but he still works the room as if he has something to prove. "They said, `What's wrong with this squash? It's not right.' You can't fool your longtime customers."

Until the 1960s, cafeterias were a staple of Southern life. On Sundays you went to church, then to the local cafeteria with the whole family. The institution's roots have been traced by food author John Mariani in his book "America Eats Out" to the Exchange Buffet in New York, the first self-service restaurant. It opened in 1885, offering men only the opportunity to buy food at a counter and eat standing up.

In 1902, Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart used the latest technology to create the Automat in Philadelphia, which offered self-service meals through mechanized boxes, a concept that flourished there and in New York City.

In 1905, the first cafeteria hit Los Angeles with a novel feature: female cooks. The idea so engulfed the West Coast that Easterners took to calling them "California-style restaurants."

Conditions for growth

But cafeterias became most popular in the South, where chains such as Morrison's, Piccadilly, Furr's and S&W spread through the region. They offered a bright, clean place where customers could see what they were ordering at a time when poverty was rampant and so was the fear of germs.

It was a time when people were leaving the farms for office jobs, and the cafeteria replicated the big midday meal. It also replaced the courthouse-square cafes that had been a fixture in nearly every small Southern town.

"It really is country cooking come to town," says John T. Edge, a food writer and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.

Fast food began eating into cafeteria business in the 1960s, as did a host of new restaurants that opened after desegregation cleared the way for interracial dining, says John Egerton, a food writer who lives in Nashville.

Still, cafeterias remain somewhat of a presence in the South and southern Midwest.

Friendly service

Customers stream into the Belle Meade through a long hallway where a sign on the wall asks: "Make your selection as quickly as possible in consideration for those waiting behind you."

"They absolutely panic," says co-owner Mickey Pope, who has worked here since 1968. "They say, `I don't know what I want. Tell me what I want!' "

A woman talking into a cell phone (who turns out to be Dottie Frist, sister of Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist) reads the menu board to her daughter, arranging to bring her takeout.

"Go for the pork!" Pope nudges, as he greets the first customers of the evening. "Buy a lot, darlin'. The rent's due."

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