Why Lunch at Your Local Meat 'N' Three Is Always Worth the Long Line

Rick Bragg on why these classic Southern restaurants are not just serving good food—they’re remind us of who we are.

Women enjoy Ajax Diner
Photo: Robbie Caponetto

The last time I had worked this hard for a meal of baked chicken, I was helping my Uncle John dig a well. But this current venture seemed like such a good idea, at first.

"Want to go to Johnny's Restaurant?" my friend Jake Reiss asked me one day.

Visions of stewed green beans and tomatoes swam through my mind. I swear I could smell the meatloaf—spiked with a little barbecue sauce—and could almost feel the hot cornbread crumble in my fingers.

"I will even pay," I lied.

But wantin' a thing and actually gettin' it are not the same. I always wished for a 1969 Maserati and a squirrel monkey, but I'm still waiting.


Johnny's, you see, is not a place you just happen by. It's a beloved, award-winning meat 'n' three in Homewood, Alabama, that demands a little more of a commitment.

First, we had to find someplace to park in downtown Homewood, a kind of small-town oasis over the mountain from Birmingham. It was lunchtime on a day when every parking spot between the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville and the Port of Mobile was apparently spoken for.

Open bar stools
There’s always a seat for you at Ajax—even if you’ll probably have to wait for it. Robbie Caponetto

"We will park off-site," my friend said, which I took to mean "right next door."

Instead, this involved a forced march through a back alley—but only for a quarter mile or so. Homewood is a pleasant place, so it was actually quite nice, as alleys go. Still, it was a slog for a hungry man.

This trek led, in time, to a flight of stairs.... I had forgotten about them.

"Oh, Lord," I said out loud.

My friend, who's in good shape and likes exertion, looked at me with something akin to pity. This offended me. Of course a man on his way to eat macaroni and cheese would be alarmed to encounter stairs.

I limped on up to find that I could not easily open the door. There were too many people wedged inside, cheek by jowl.

"Oh, Lord," I said again.

It was 11:35 a.m.

"Believe it or not, five minutes ago, there wasn't nobody here," said a man just ahead of us in line, but I didn't believe him. I thought he was paid to stand there and say that, to offer hope to the starving.

It was one of those bleak days when I didn't have the time to wait. I pushed and nudged my way out, sick at heart. The hateful steps stretched below me.

"I just wanted to eat some collard greens," I said to no one in particular.

I think I might have even sighed.

fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potato soufflé, and mac and cheese
Fill up on fried chicken, collard greens, sweet potato soufflé, and mac and cheese at Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta. Robbie Caponetto

But this is the fact of life at a great meat 'n' three, in a time when places that offer quality Southern comfort food—I mean genuinely fine—seem harder and harder to find, or at least to wedge ourselves inside.

And this is the great mystery of it all. In a universe of bad food that's cooked and served by indifferent people who have no real commitment to it or apparently any taste buds of their own, we will undergo almost any hardship to eat a meal that reminds us of our history.

As these places disappear, as the great chefs pass on and their recipes fade, the lines seem to grow longer and longer at those that remain. I don't have any science to back it up, but I believe it in my bones. Southerners of almost every walk of life will stand in line for chicken livers longer than they will for a driver's license or even an MRI, because the food we have come for is more than just sustenance. It is part of us.

Ajax Diner
Checkered tablecloths and red booths are the calling cards at Ajax Diner. Robbie Caponetto

This is not complicated by politics or class or even football allegiance, though—in restaurants where the tables are this close together—you may have to tolerate some ignorant or even worrisome opinions. But I am willing to listen to a man opine about how the Crimson Tide is overrated or how the polio vaccine was a Communist plot if it means I can have some slow-cooked pinto beans—especially if I get rewarded with a good piece of fried chicken, fresh Gulf fish in Greek seasoning, or a fried green tomato that doesn't taste like it was prepared by a high school kid who thinks oregano is a state in the Pacific Northwest.

This is the way it is at Johnny's Restaurant, owned by chef Timothy Hontzas, whose traditional Southern dishes mingle beautifully with the flavors of his Greek heritage; his kin have been in this business for generations. But Johnny's, which has been open since 2012, is carrying on traditions that have nothing to do with recipes. It has, intentionally or not, become part of the great mystery: Why, if you want to taste this kind of slow-cooking, must you have the patience of Job?

2902 18th Street S., Suite 200, Homewood, AL

Chef Timothy Hontzas at Johnny's
Chef Timothy Hontzas. Robbie Caponetto

Niki's West

Over the mountain, at Niki's West on Birmingham's Finley Avenue, you will find one of the biggest parking lots in the South that doesn't have a flashing neon sign screaming "Bingo!" But sometimes I still have to circle the building a few times if I get there around noon.

Inside, lines of customers move in baby steps through rows separated by velvet ropes. It is not unusual to walk in and see what seems to be 100 people ahead of me, and they are all smiling.

They move inexorably toward what I believe to be the finest and grandest steam table on earth. Anywhere else, white beans taste like prison food, but here they are a delicacy. This place has crisp slabs of cutlets as well as fried and grilled fish and...help me, somebody.

Still, I am not a patient man. There are just so many things to do, and the days are getting shorter now. I shuffle along the velvet rope and wonder when was the last time I stood in a line so long. I think it was to see Tom Petty. It moves efficiently, considering the sheer mass of humanity, pushed along by no-nonsense servers who somehow make you feel that you will disappoint them if you take too long to decide.

Fried green tomatoes
Inside Johnny’s Restaurant, you’ll find a chalkboard of specials and a menu of classics such as fried green tomatoes. Robbie Caponetto

It works, at least until everything is brought to a shuddering stop by one clueless customer who does not appreciate the well-oiled machine, someone who thinks the sun rises and sets on their own head.

"Do the collards have any meat in them?" I once heard someone ask. The line stopped with a groan, like the sound that boxcars make when the engine, about a mile ahead, grinds and screeches to a halt.

"It's the doggone South, lady," I thought. "You're lucky if it hasn't got a whole hog in it, toenails and all."

I have found that when I cannot decide between two of the fresh vegetables on the menu, it is wise to simply ask for both. I do it for my fellow man.

On the tables at Niki's, there are rows of butter for your cornbread. Please, at my last meal, let there be real butter and not hydrogenated anything, refined from what I believe to be axle grease and tears.

Sometimes, as you leave, you have to wait in yet another line to pay. People seem oddly at peace here too. I think they are just a little bit drunk from joy.

233 Finley Ave. W., Birmingham, AL

Mary Mac’s dining room
Mary Mac’s dining room has a sense of history. Robbie Caponetto

Saraceno's Restaurant

Down in Baldwin County, Alabama, on County 32, not far from the Fairhope Airport, about 100 Baptists waited patiently for delicious fried, barbecued, or roasted chicken. When the meat is that good, I guess you don't need much else.

I was standing behind them, too, in the modest brick-and-metal building that houses Saraceno's Restaurant and remarked—quietly, I believed—that this had to have been the most Baptists I had ever seen in one place in my life.

"I used to be a Lutheran," said the woman in front of me.

It startled me, and I wondered, just briefly, if all Baptists could read minds like that.

But I digress. The point is that I had to rearrange my dining schedule at one of my favorite restaurants around the eating habits of churches to which I did not belong.

Plates of food
Ajax Diner stacks its plates of food high. Robbie Caponetto

They moved together in whole congregations. I have seen giant buses roll up and deposit entire choirs and deacon boards and even the occasional youth minister. I just had to sigh, again, and retreat.

"Baptists like chicken," my mother said.

"I like chicken," I replied.

"You would have made a good Baptist," she said.

Once, I believed I had it all figured out and could evade the influx altogether. But then I got buried under the insurance agents, police officers, and Midwestern retirees. I also thought I would just get there right when they opened at 11 a.m. but found that everybody arrives early. People press up against the glass of the locked door, staring at the steam table as if it were a bulldog puppy in a pet store, till the owner, like a prison warden, turns the key and lets them in.

9509 Country Road 32, Fairhope, AL

Plate full of sides
Sides like macaroni and cheese, pickled beets, and a vegetable medley satisfy at Mary Mac’s. Robbie Caponetto

Mary Mac's Tea Room

In grinding, agitating Atlanta, Mary Mac's Tea Room struggles valiantly to be an escape to slow dining in the middle of the South's most maddening sprawl. Still, the parking lot overflows, and the waiters, doing their best, hand you a plate that has a yeast roll with thumbholes in it like it's a bowling ball. But the cabbage is to die for.

There are things you hear in this city that you just don't hear anywhere else.

"Let's go to Mary Mac's," someone suggests.

"I went last year, and it wasn't good," replies somebody else.

"Well, it's good again," explains the first person.

And everyone knows exactly what they mean. I was there not long ago. It was good again—and my yeast roll still had a thumbhole in it.

224 Ponce De Leon Ave. NE., Atlanta, GA

Aaron Wilson
Visit Mary Mac’s Tea Room on Ponce De Leon Avenue in Atlanta, and you might meet Aaron Wilson, shown here with a plate of the good stuff. Robbie Caponetto

Ajax Diner

I was reaching for the door handle outside the Ajax Diner in Oxford, Mississippi, when I heard the odd, loud staccato of, well, something, approaching from within. It sounded like a hundred monkeys abusing the floor with tack hammers. I should have turned and run, but I was tired and hungry. At this spot on The Square in Oxford, they smoke the turkey and serve it with dressing. I could see it all in my mind's eye: envision the quiet table in a peaceful corner, smell the sage in the round scoop of dressing, and taste the...

Then I was almost swept away by a tidal wave of sorority women, whose high heels I realized—too late—I had heard earlier. I wasn't harmed, only alarmed.

I was, for several long seconds, too startled to eat. But in a way, it reminded me how this food endures, that if it can survive a party weekend in Oxford, it will last for eternity.

118 Courthouse Square, Oxford, MS

On the menu at Ajax, you can find burgers as well as meatloaf, pot roast with gravy, country-fried steak, hot tamale pie, and Southern fried catfish. Robbie Caponetto

Mr. Bill's

One of my favorite places to visit in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is Mr. Bill's. It is actually across the river in Northport, but geography—or time, for that matter—doesn't count for much here. I close my eyes and listen to the click of the melamine plates on the tabletops and imagine myself young again. It is at this eatery, I believe, that I first understood what people meant by the term "comfort food." Hamburger steak with gravy and onions, mashed potatoes, green beans, Mexican cornbread, and iceberg lettuce salads with Thousand Island dressing—I guess I get the same thing every time.

They have Jell-O salad. I don't recall what flavor it is, but in my memory, it always seems to be green. Go figure. I don't like this salad, but when I see a headful of white hair bent over a square of lime-green gelatin, I always smile and know, for a little while, things are going to be all right.

Still, because it is a true Southern diner, it can't be easy. If you get there at noon or even 11:20 a.m., the lot is full and you have to steal a space from another one nearby. Once, I had to park in a used-car lot and got caught, so I pretended to be very, very interested in a 1997 Corvette.

2715 McFarland Blvd., Northport, AL

Cupboard of hot sauce
If you need to add some extra seasoning to your food, Ajax is more than ready for you. Robbie Caponetto

The Colonnade

I guess, of all my meat 'n' three memories, my best is from The Colonnade, located on Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta. The baskets of hot cornbread muffins and yeast rolls there are worth writing home about. But they also feature a few things other meat 'n' threes don't. This place is fancier, befitting a big city, and even has a bar. Many years ago, the matriarchs of Atlanta would gather there for something called "ladies' lunch." They were, allegedly, sometimes over-served with Bloody Mary's so strong they were almost pink, and came screeching out of the parking lot with their Cadillacs. This was not a sacrifice I was willing to endure, for baked goods. Inconvenience is one thing; runover is forever.

1879 Cheshire Bridge Road, Atlanta, GA

Hot sauce
Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, Alabama is stocked with bottles of pepper sauce sourced from a nearby farm. Robbie Caponetto
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