Are true, down-home Southern restaurants gone with the wind? If it's got ferns and fried potato skins, better beat a hasty retreat

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

I miss you, Electric Maid. Never more so than now, when I've found out just how rare a beauty you were.

I've recently returned to the United States after several years overseas. I sampled a fair number of memorable restaurants and caf'es from Rome to Moscow, but they never quenched my yearning for those restaurants that dot the American South.

Now, understand that merely being in the South doesn't qualify a place as a Southern restaurant. Neither does not being part of a chain; that is necessary, but not sufficient. It's something more.

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One for sure was the Electric Maid, which opened on a street corner in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1940s. She had sugar bowls on every table, her breakfast rolls were baked fresh every morning, and even into the mid-1970s you could get a daily special -- meat, two vegetables, and all the iced tea you could drink -- for under $1.50.

The Maid was eventually turned into a fern bar, which I never entered, out of respect to her memory.

But I didn't forget her kind. Soon after my return, I headed the car down from Washington, with thoughts of country ham and fresh seafood beckoning me to Virginia and the Carolinas.

I returned from my weeklong search a sadder but wiser man. To the list of endangered species in the US must be added genuine Southern restaurants.

Sure, there are still some out there. The best I found was here in Morehead City, a place called the Sanitary Fish Market & Restaurant. For just $3.75 I bought delicious shrimp creole served on white crockery, with cole slaw and hush puppies on the side. The waitresses wore white uniforms, with funny little hats hair-pinned on the tops of their curls.

But otherwise, the landscape was pretty bleak.

The low point came one evening at a place near Edenton, N.C. It was a family-owned place, and the son of the original owners had taken over. The food was good, and reasonably priced. But there were museum posters all over the wall, and spathophyllum plants tucked in the corners. Another Southern restaurant had bitten the dust.

The experience set me to thinking about what is -- and is not -- a Southern restaurant. I offer the following guidelines:

A family name on a restaurant is best. Watch out for any place that starts with ``La'' or ``El''; you're likely headed for a cross-cultural mishmash.

A sign near the door advising that ``Rotary Club meets here Wednesdays at 12:00'' is a good omen. Better still is a cracked and faded decal that says the place is recommended by the late Duncan Hines. The ancient sticker proves the place has stood the test of time.

See if there's a photo of the owner, his family, or a longtime employee's retirement party posted near the front. If the owner is proudly displaying a big bass, that's promising.

What's the decor? Stuffed fish and deer heads are fine. Reproduced Tiffany lamps are cause for concern.

What's on the table? Is the sugar dispenser clear glass with a screw-on pouring top? Is there a ketchup bottle, or green peppers in a bottle of vinegar?

Does the waitress present you with a basket of hot rolls, or even cornbread, before she's even taken your order? The place definitely has promise. If, on the other hand, it's croissants, you're in the wrong establishment.

If the menu is dogeared and has a state or local map, flags, animals, or a drawing of the owner in a chef's hat on the cover, that's good. If it's parchment or is held together by gold cord instead of staples, get worried.

How much does the menu explain? If it says a dish has ``our famous'' sauce, that's OK. But if it says anything's ``tantalizing'' or ``delicately prepared with just a hint of . . . ,'' you should have serious misgivings.

At least one of the following items must be on the menu: grits, collards, bar-b-que (or its derivatives, bbq and barbecue), honey-fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, candied yams, hush puppies, or Brunswick stew.

Is there a charge for refills on coffee or iced tea? Worse, do you have to ask? Then it's not the real thing.

What about the check? If it's scrawled on a green pad, with a hand-inked ``thank you,'' fine. But if it's itemized by a dot-matrix printer, you're not only in the wrong place, but the wrong era.

Does the owner stand at the cash register and ask, ``Was everything all right?'' And does he or she seem genuinely wounded if it wasn't?

If the parting drawl you hear as you walk out the door is, ``Y'all come back,'' and you inadvertently answer, ``I will'' -- and really mean it -- you may well have savored a real Southern restaurant.

But don't just say it, do it. And tell you friends about the place. Otherwise, you have only yourself to blame if the next time you find they've hung ferns everywhere and offer fried potato skins stuffed with avocado dip for appetizers.

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