Irondale’s famous cafe makes you feel you’ve come home

If the term "meat and three" originated in the South, there’s a good chance it might have started at the Irondale Cafe, a no-frills restaurant that’s been serving up Southern cooking and hospitality of one sort or another for more than 75 years. Even more remarkable is that there have been only five owners in these many years, and at least one person in the kitchen has been on staff for more than two decades.

Add fame to the obvious longevity, as this eatery was the inspiration for the Whistle Stop Cafe and fried green tomatoes made famous by Birmingham’s own Fannie Flagg. During a 40-year span of this establishment’s history, it was owned and operated by Fannie’s aunt, Miss Bess Fortenberry.

At an evening visit, we played host for family members visiting from California and Tennessee. We arrived late as we were delayed by a train, giving credibility to the name "Whistle Stop Cafe."

Admittedly, the Nashvillian in the group was not overly surprised, but the delegation from the West Coast was a bit awed by the homey simplicity of our destination. Aside from framed memorabilia honoring Flagg’s book and movie, the most colorful things in the restaurant were the food and our party of six.

The drill is simple and well known to us central Alabamians. Move through the cafeteria-style line and choose from eight to 10 entrees, depending what day it is and what the special of the day might be. Make other choices from some 12 to 14 vegetables. The prices are reasonable, $4.99 for a three-vegetable plate, $6.39 for a meat and two vegetables. A meat and three is $7.49. At lunch, the plates are 50 cents less.

Our visitors showed little imagination in the ordering procedure. Admitting neither homesickness or fried-food deprivation as excuses, to a man (and woman), they leaned toward fried chicken. One of our party ordered boneless and opted for chicken fingers. Others tried chicken and dumplings and country fried steak.

Vegetable orders were more varied with one exception: Everybody ordered the cafe’s signature fried green tomatoes.

Squash, turnip greens, fried okra, rice, creamed corn and green beans were among the other vegetable choices. We were impressed when one of the Californians took a bottle of pepper sauce from the centerpiece and dashed a bit of vinegar on his turnip greens. He hadn’t been out of the South too long after all.

Everything was warm, tasty and filling. The servings were generous, but the food was not foot-stomping, mouth-watering good. We surmised that it had perhaps sat around too long waiting for us to get across the railroad tracks.

The fried green tomatoes had developed a sheen on what had become an envelope of hard to cut or bite batter. Our out-of-towners enjoyed them nonetheless. Turnip greens, creamed corn and green beans fared a little better. Banana pudding was acceptable.

A lunch visit proved our assumption was probably true. Again there was a train, but this time we had learned the proper turns to avoid the tracks. The only possible problem was a bus tour that had just "landed."

There was no reason for concern as the cafe keeps the line moving so that any wait or inconvenience is not long.

The much larger crowd at lunch (not even counting the tour group) kept everything busy but not frantic. Happy noises of dining and conversations added to a positive atmosphere. The easy rumble of the passing trains didn’t hurt.

No pun intended, the supper and lunch visits were like night and day. The restaurant’s motto should read "eat early, eat well." Freshly prepared made a difference.

Country fried steak was quite good. With mashed potatoes and a rich brown gravy, this was a good choice. Creamed corn was as good as it might get this season of the year.

Smoked chicken was tender with a nice, not-overwhelming outdoorsy flavor. Fried okra was well received as was a very nice squash casserole.

We understand why the fried pork chop is one of the cafe’s most popular items. Offered on Monday and Thursday, it is boneless, lightly fried and delicious. Definitely worth the trip, as was the light and tasty sweet potato souffle. Northern beans, with a dollop of ketchup, were a bonus.

On a vegetable plate, turnip greens were good, the squash casserole was better, and an order of fried green tomatoes put the book back on top of the required reading list. On this visit they were everything the earlier ones weren’t. Lightly breaded, nicely fried, appropriately tangy – what more could we ask? We need to invite our other folks back for lunch. It’s no wonder this item made the list of "100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama."

Bread is not the Irondale Caf? strong point. Cornbread was dry and crumbly. Rolls were, well, not impressive. Desserts, however, were!

The four of us sampled a slice of coconut pie and a slab of Mississippi mud cake. We were told that the pie was not homemade, but we could have been fooled. Delicious, the pie sported a flaky pastry and a meringue that would make one’s grandmother proud.

The cake was homemade and was outstanding. A large square of moist, rich devil’s food was topped with bits of marshmallow, drizzled with chocolate and sprinkled with chopped pecans. A chocoholic’s dream!

On both visits we were impressed by the service. Although one goes through a line and takes the tray to a table, drinks and other amenities are served with charm and efficiency.

On sale at the restaurant, Fannie Flagg’s "Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook" contains more than 150 authentic recipes including fried green tomatoes and Mississippi mud cake. Perhaps even more interesting than the recipes, Flagg’s observations are particularly poignant.

She says that "eating is fun and I find it impossible to be miserable and angry and enjoy a good meal at the same time. Everybody could use a little comfort these days and is there any place better for a little comfort than a cafe? No matter where you come from, East or West, North or South, close your eyes, forget your troubles, and come on back home, for just a little while."

The Irondale Cafe is a pretty good place to come back to.

 

 

Friday, April 08, 2005
FLETCHER HARVEY
For The Birmingham News

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