There's nothing better than a good meat 'n' three
Rick Bragg at Roma's Illustration
Credit: John Cuneo

They changed the name not long ago from Roma's to Nick's Place, to honor the restaurant's longtime patriarch, but most of the people huddled over their hamburger steaks still call it Roma's and will call it that till they die. We hold on to things here. Another local landmark—a beautiful lake—dried up decades ago, but the street sign still reads Nisbet Lake Road.

Some amount of change may be inevitable here in Jacksonville, Alabama, but until someone messes with the recipe for the Thousand Island dressing, my people will come to this place, rest their bones in the Naugahyde booths, and watch the world and the pickup trucks spin around the city square—which is more of a circle, really—in my hometown.

We used to have other places, but they have since faded into memory. Call them meat 'n' threes or mom-and-pop shops or whatever you like. They're vanishing, which is unacceptable. I have watched the days of my life roll by in the window-front booth at Roma's. I count on the scenes, smells, and tastes to keep these remaining days of mine somehow on level.

I wrote my first story on a manual typewriter in the dark office of the nearby Jacksonville News and then celebrated my rise to fame as a big shot writer over a sirloin steak sandwich at Roma's. It put a dent in my salary of $50 a week, but how do you celebrate with a Happy Meal?

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Little has changed. Miz Tina, the matriarch who gives me homemade bread to take to my mother, still sits at a corner table, surrounded by family and friends, snapping a great pile of green beans. Miz Sophie, in the kitchen, will prepare them the next day with chicken, sweet potatoes, and macaroni and cheese. A grandchild, Konstantina, spends part of the day in Miz Tina's lap and part of it whirling through the joint. The waitress, Carolina, asks me if I want the usual or the special. Not much else is necessary.

Bland, impersonal food has become acceptable in many places—but not here. My junior high school basketball coach sits in one booth. (He paddled me once for wrestling on the basketball court.) The boy I was wrestling with sits three booths away. Nostalgia, and the food, hold us.

It is the same across the state in Northport, at an institution called Mr. Bill's Southern Smokehouse, where the chicken breast is crisp and the coleslaw is made fresh. There are hearing aids in every 15th seat; old folks will not eat bad food. Now their children and grandchildren come. They were raised right.

It's the same at Saraceno's Restaurant in Fairhope, where the family-run buffet has corn casserole and potatoes—and if the Baptists get in front of you on a Sunday, you can die of anticipation. The town's great hallmark, Ben's Jr. Bar-B-Que, closed recently; it leaves a cold place here.

But about 300 miles to the north, the grill at Roma's remains hot to the touch, hot enough to warm a lifetime—and a town.