Five meat-n-threes to feed your Southern soul


Whenever I want to remind my stomach that Atlanta is indeed in the heart of the South, I head for one of the city’s venerated meat-n-threes. Just the designation "meat-n-three" immediately evokes a sequence of images: a modest storefront, the interior of which suggests mid-20th-century America. A steam table full of straightforward yet slyly distinctive Southern dishes. A wait in line, with trays like children in the school cafeteria. Fried chicken, meatloaf, long-cooked vegetables, bread for sopping up nutritious juices, banana pudding or red velvet cake for dessert. Hungry folks whose appetites are being sated in more than just the physical sense.

Meat-n-three can also be something of a misnomer. Most places these days actually offer a meat-based entree with two vegetable sides — with cornbread or roll and perhaps a drink thrown in — as their standard plates. But meat-‘n’-three has a better ring to it, so it’s the nickname that’s stuck.

Also, the line between meat-n-three and "soul food restaurant" blurs easily. In my mind they’re nearly synonymous, regardless of whether the place is black-owned or white-owned. I find as much inherent soulfulness in Sharon Carver’s mac-n-cheese as I do in the fried chicken at Son’s Place.

That’s the quiet glory of the genre: The food at these welcoming lunchtime spots unites without conflict. I’m always reassured by the consistent and easygoing racial diversity of the customers at meat-n-threes. And it’s no big deal, really. We’re all just here for a quick, comforting meal of well-known favorites.

To clarify my own definition of meat-n-three, I’ve kept this selection to those places that serve cafeteria-style from steam tables. By no means should you consider this a definitive roundup: These are my five favorites. I’d be curious to hear what yours are.

Carver’s Country Kitchen

This west side spot is a literal mom-n-pop shop: Sharon Carver stands behind a serving window, making plates as fast as she can, and her husband, Robert, rings you up after you’ve finished eating. The list of dishes is written on a board and changes daily, though you can bank on her macaroni-n-cheese — the creamiest, most custardy version in the city. Her country ham reminds me of my grandmother’s at Easter. The Big Gulp-sized sweet tea rescues you from falling into a food coma (though you might have a caffeine and sugar headache later). Yes, there once were actual groceries sold here, but word is out on this place and they’ve been cleared in favor of more table space. Reading the quirky signs and memorabilia hanging on the wall soothes your wait in line considerably during primetime lunch.

1118 W. Marietta St. 404-794-4410.

Collard Green Cafe

James Paige made a wise move in relocating his operation from Toco Hills to this smaller but more attractive location right off the Shallowford Road exit. The wonderfully unctuous oxtails top my list of soul food indulgences in the city. I go for the catfish filets or the meaty beef ribs slaked with sauce if the ‘tails aren’t available. For those of you who eschew swine, know that Paige makes his slow-cooked, real deal collards with smoked turkey necks. The crusty mac-n-cheese used to round out my regular triad of dishes, but lately I’ve grown fond of the well-seasoned, nicely proportioned broccoli-rice casserole. If the sweet tooth strikes, indulge in a slice of the red velvet cake displayed on the counter.

2566 Shallowford Road, Suite 112. 404-634-3440.

Matthew’s Cafeteria

Wally, Beav! Time to head to Matthew’s for lunch! Eating at this Tucker landmark doesn’t just throw you back — it hurls you back — to 1952. Why isn’t everyone wearing horn-rimmed glasses? If it weren’t for the businessmen and young families, the institutional dining rooms would have you believing you were eating in a junior high cafeteria. But even die-hard urbanites will be charmed by the food’s earnest simplicity. The sides are my preference here: I like to make a meal of double helpings of the fried green tomatoes (served on Tuesdays) and the gooey, crackery squash casserole. Homesick for a Thanksgiving meal? Thursday is turkey and cornbread stuffing day. You’ll scrape the bottom of your bowl of banana pudding.

2299 Main St., Tucker. 770-491-9577.

Our Way Cafe

I still picture Our Way in its former Decatur locale in a rickety strip mall near Agnes Scott. I’d navigate the treacherous potholes in the parking lot and rush into the dim room, praying the restaurant was serving its rich, deliquescent roast pork. In its new Avondale Estates milieu (another strip mall, but a much cheerier space), roast pork is served only on Tuesdays, so that’s when I pay a visit. The veggies — including silky creamed corn, piquant, vinegary collards, and earthy field peas — are worth the trek anytime.

2831 E. College Ave., Avondale Estates. 404-292-9356.

Son’s Place

It took me awhile to warm to Son’s Place. I seemed to always arrive when the fried chicken had grown tepid in its holding bin behind the counter. So I’ve learned to come during the lunch rush, which never seems too harried, anyway. Then the fried chicken comes in hot batches from the back, juicy, saline and crispy in all the consummate ways. This is a place to savor the classics: ribs, mac-n-cheese, green beans, collards. The treat here that gives it a leg up in my mind when I’m pondering which meat-n-three to hit? The hoe cakes, lacy and buttery around the edge with a satisfying cornbread bite in the center. I could go for two right now.

100 Hurt St. 404-581-0530.

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