Matthews Cafeteria: A Disappointing Breakfast

In the late 1990s, I worked at a company in Tucker, GA. We would make almost-weekly visits to a local landmark: Matthews Cafeteria. In business since 1955, everyone in the area knew about Matthews. It was a meeting place for locals, and it drew diners from all over the area, because the food was wonderful. And when I say “food,” I mean real, Southern food. Wide, flat green beans, seasoned with ham hocks. Corn seasoned with bacon grease. Fried chicken, battered and fried by hand. Really, really good Southern food. I had not had a chance to get back over there since I left that job in 1999.

About two years ago, Matthews was featured on the Food Network show, “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” with Guy Fieri. Guy was shown around by, I presume, one of the owners. The guy showed him how they make their biscuits from scratch, by hand, and how they lovingly make their sausage gravy to slather on top of their biscuits. Upon taking a single bite, Guy loudly declared, “O! That’s money, right there!” I had seen this episode before, but I saw a rerun of it on Sunday, and it flung a cravin’ on me to go. So this morning, I arose at 5:00 AM, was out of the house by 5:25, and was walking into Matthews at 5:50.

This is an old-timey cafe, that I imagine looks pretty much like it did when they opened in 1955. There are no frills, but that’s fine. You don’t need frills for good food. I’ve long felt that the hole-in-the-wall, sparsely decorated joints had the best food. Sadly, that mantra failed me this morning.

You first go through a line, telling the servers what you want and they hand it to you on a plate. I knew I wanted a biscuit with sausage gravy, but I was also thinking about the fried steak. The woman who was helping me didn’t seem to speak much English, since when I pointed at what I assumed was the fried steak and asked, “Is that the fried steak?” she didn’t answer. Instead, she placed two patties on a plate, and then proceeded to dump hash browns on them. I was able to stop her, so she raked the potatoes and onions back into the chafing dish, and looked at me for what was next. I said, “I’d like a biscuit and gravy, please.” She grunted, split a biscuit and ladled some gravy over it. I then got a glass of orange juice, bringing the total to $5-something. I took a seat on a terribly uncomfortable metal chair, and got ready to tuck in.

I should note that there were maybe 5 other customers in the place, two of which were older men (mid 60s to early 70s, maybe) seated together. The first thing I heard one of them say was, “… that skanky bitch…” which is not something you hear coming from an old guy all that often. I heard that same phrase at least three more times over the next ten minutes, along with “motherf**ker,” and an account of how drunk he was at some function. Keep it classy, gents, keep it classy.

On to the food. The biscuit was probably OK, though it was hard to tell. It seemed like, by itself, it would have been light and flaky. The gravy that was on top of it was horrible. It was the thinnest white gravy I’ve ever seen. It was basically water, with a dusting of flour, a dash of pepper and one piece of sausage, one thin, tiny, almost imperceptible piece of sausage, that was hardly worth mentioning. There was no flavor at all to this gravy. The fried steak was the highlight of the meal, but even it tasted like it came from a factory, via a deep freeze.

The orange juice was that particular gloop that hotels give you for free. You know what I mean; it’s from concentrate, tastes like it is still too concentrated, and leaves you wishing you’d actually had orange juice to drink.

Needless to say, I was terribly disappointed. I had gotten it into my head that the Matthews cafeteria food I remembered from 14 years ago was what I was going to get. That the owners still took pride in making quality food, and serving it for a good price. Sadly, that’s not what happened. This leaves me with two possible explanations for how Guy Fieri could possibly rave about the food during his visit. 1. What they served him was tailored just for him, and is not what they serve to the average customer. 2. Guy is contractually obligated to only rave about the food he gets to taste on his show, no matter how odious it might actually be. Or maybe even a third option: the food was still good when the show was filmed, but they’ve fallen off a cliff in quality since then. I don’t know which one is more likely, but it doesn’t really matter. I won’t be going back to figure out which is correct.

Real Southern Cooking. Oh, Yes.

Friday we made one of our few yearly adventures into that most fearsome of places, the city of Atlanta. We live about 30 miles outside the city, but we only venture in a few times a year. This time, it was to visit the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola.

As we were planning the trip, we decided to have dinner at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. This place has been an Atlanta institution since 1945. I’ve known about it all my life, but strangely enough, I’ve never eaten there. Tammy had just seen a piece about it on some food show on TV, so I suggested we go there, since we were going to pass it on the way to the Aquarium. She agreed, and we did.

After dining there, I really wish we had not waited so long to go. This was, quite possibly, the best not-cooked-at-home Southern food I’ve ever had. The first thing they bring you is a basket of bread. Hot homemade yeast rolls, delicious cornbread and sweet & sticky cinnamon rolls, with real butter to slather on them. Oh my. Since it was New Year’s Day, they were giving everyone a little dish of black-eyed peas, because eating those on NYD is supposed to bring good luck. I love black-eyed peas, and these were delicious.

For my meal, I had the country fried steak, fries and spiced apples. I was expecting a piece of cubed steak, with a heavy, fried chicken-like crust, and a white gravy. What I got was like what my mother-in-law makes; three pieces of cubed steak, lightly dredged in flour and fried, smothered in a heavenly brown gravy. It was so amazingly good. I was a bit disappointed in the fries; I was expecting either steak fries or hand-cut fries, but what I got was straight from a bag. The apples were OK, but needed more sugar. These deficiencies were more than made up for by the deliciousness of the steak.

Tammy had chicken & dumplings, macaroni & cheese and collards. I don’t normally like chicken & dumplings, but I had several bites of hers. I would order those again, that’s how good they were. The mac & cheese, again, tasted like homemade; a thick, rich cheese smothering the macaroni, with just a hint of hot pepper sauce. Nothing like the Kraft “cheese and macaroni.” I also tried the collards. I don’t like collards, but these were the best I’ve ever tasted.

Thomas got a burger. It was a huge, hand-made burger that was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. I had the leftovers the next day. 🙂

Then came desert. Thomas had a scoop of chocolate ice cream and Tammy and I both had the banana pudding. Oh yes, the banana pudding. Its deliciousness is almost beyond words. This was not vanilla Jell-O pudding with banana slices and vanilla wafers. This was real banana pudding, with loads of banana slices in it, a heavy bread base and a light meringue  on top. Yeah, it was awesome.

The place is a little pricey, so it can’t be a regular dining experience for us. But I hope to go there at least a few more times this year. 🙂 It will at least become a once-a-year thing for us.