Distinctive Dining in Mississippi
by Joe Goodell
The Dinner Bell/McComb, MS
I enjoy collecting restaurants. Not for any sense of ownership, but in anticipation for visiting those where I’ve never been, and for reliving the delectable memories of those where I have been. What counts is a unique ambience (we can forget the chains), the special service, the special menus, and of course the attention paid to achieving it all.
My “collection” generally discounts size, although small has an edge. There is no place for “scale.” “Up” or “down” are not factors. Coat-and-tie, rough cut, from hat-off to leave-it-on, all can be good. And I approach all respectfully, as though the entryways sense deference.
I am dismayed to learn of some which are no longer. I did, however, arrive at Clarksdale’s Madidi in time for one of their formal dinners (followed by a night cap at the rousing Ground Zero Blues Club). I tucked into the best pulled pork sandwich ever at Mercantile BBQ in Collins, and the ham and cheese omelets at Harkins Family Bakery in Canton. Sad to say that I never made it to Oxford’s Yocona River Inn, nor to every one of Mississippi’s “round table” spots. But at Walnut Hills in Vicksburg I did enjoy the company of seven others (whom I’d never met) all helping ourselves to the well prepared dishes turning before of us.
While I am still young enough to enjoy the best blues in Mississippi I must visit two of the remaining rural juke joints: Blue Front Café in Bentonia and Po’ Monkey near Merigold. Plenty of beer, although the menus are limited to burgers, and perhaps a meat-and-three meal. There is a novel sound, Bentonia Blues, and both have earned Mississippi Blues Trail Markers.
Doe’s Eat Place/Greenville, MS
Onward to Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, to the Crystal Grill in Greenwood and to 1933 Restaurant in Ruleville for roast duck in red wine. Likewise to Gulfport’s Nezaty Café for chicken salad and bean soup, then to Hattiesburg’s Cotton Blues and Leatha’s BBQ Inn. I need to find the time and roll the miles to Cleveland’s Airport Grocery, to Woody’s in Tupelo, Weidmann’s in Meridian, Ellie’s Snack Bar in Iuka and to a shrimp po’ boy at Back Forty in Lake.
Airport Grocery/Cleveland, MS
For the jolly good times at places I have visited I’ll be returning for a Slugburger at Borroum’s Drug Store in Corinth, to Council House Café at French Camp, to Alice Café in Ellisville, and to Saturday dinner at Gibbe’s Old Country Store in Learned. On my home turf are Mama Hamil’s and The Gathering in Madison, plus Cock of the Walk in nearby Ridgeland.
Taking a month off sometime to “dine my way around the Square” in Oxford will be the stuff of dreams; I’ll start with the Creole menu at Boure’. As my travels take me through Natchez, Indianola, Philadelphia, Vicksburg and Louisville, it’ll be lunch again at Biscuits and Blues, The Crown Restaurant, Peggy’s, The Tomato Place and blackened catfish at Lake Tiak-O’Khata. Our capital city of Jackson, as you’d correctly assume, offers plenty of fine dining: Old Capitol Inn, Two Sisters’ Kitchen (southern cooking at its best), Hal & Mal’s (bowl of gumbo), Elite Restaurant, Mayflower Café, Brent’s (signature egg & olive sandwich) and my favorite, CS’s.
If you are driving through Jackson looking for Millsaps College, it’s right there across West Street east of CS’s Restaurant. The two have a symbiotic relationship reaching back to the between-classes lunch crowd. You’ll recognize CS’s for its unique four-part ambience: the place itself, the crowd, the large plates of home cooking and of course the hospitality of Pat Boland, owner-operator, greeter, maître d’ and occasional server or chef.
The architecture, well, it’s early American select, not bothering with those Greek or Old English eponyms. It’s just solidly there, waiting for you like a good friend at the Student Union. It divides into the south side large-table party room and the northern section of four-place tables and booths plus the long counter fashioned from the woodwork of a long gone hotel.
It is not clear whether there are any walls at all, or whether Pat and the original owner for 23 years, C.S. Hollingsworth, just laid all those labels, bumper stickers, cards and a few license plates up around the surrounding space. I like the one in a section devoted to our Military: “If you don’t want to stand behind our troops, please feel free to stand out in front of them.” And two catchy ones: “There are three kinds of people in the world, those who can count, and those who can’t” and “Be competent, the way to success and happiness.”
CS’s Restaurant/Jackson, MS
There are plugs for political figures of all stripes, yesteryear as well as current, praise for schools, shows, sports and naturally for the Neshoba County Fair. The collection of beer cans and bottles, smartly aligned high along every wall, represents breweries everywhere, scores of labels, scores of flavors.
The crowd includes diners from all neighborhoods and is a fashion show of business suits, military fatigues, casual and the rough shirts, trousers and boots of those who work hard outdoors. There is a mix of gender and age, all companionable and congenial. The serving staff, a blend of delightful personalities, is capable and hospitable, every one cordial and attentive.
Prominently displayed on the east wall is a hand-written menu of the day. My favorite is Thursday’s pot roast with green beans, black-eyed peas and new potatoes or macaroni-and-cheese. Buttered cornbread on the side plus a tall iced tea. Other days feature chicken, veal cutlet, stuffed bell pepper, meatloaf and lead-server Inez’s popular hamburger. Regardless of the special though, one day you will want to try the piping hot red beans and onion embracing a mound of steaming rice and edged by rounds of roasted, succulent, spicy-luscious sausage.
I recommend adding a salad with CS’s own Kumback dressing, a rich and smooth recipe more closely guarded than that of Coca-Cola. For dessert, your choice of hot oven-fresh peach cobbler or another closely guarded recipe, that exceptional peanut butter pie.
If I ever was, I’m not now chained to the Chains. Treating myself to Mississippi’s own unique dining experiences is a culinary luxury as well as adventure. But just so you will know that I can be neighborly, I have stepped across our state line for a rewarding lunchtime repast at Middendorf’s in Manchac, Louisiana, and at Jesse’s in Magnolia Springs, Alabama. Next, and soon, will be northward to Tennessee and the wealth of dining opportunities there.
Middendorf’s Restaurant/Pass Manchac, LA
Dinner Bell image from Facebook, Does’ Eat Place image courtesy Deborah Fagan Carpenter, Airport Grocery image courtesy Deborah Fagan Carpenter, Boure’ image from Facebook, CS’s Restaurant image from Facebook, Middendorf’s Restaurant image courtesy Dorsey Statham photographer, via his Facebook photo collection