Secrets of the South's Best Diners
Call them meat-and-threes, cafeterias, mom-and-pops, or diners. Whatever the name, these local spots keep it delicious by serving great Southern food. Here are our favorites―and their signature dishes―from Maryland to Texas.
Bel-Loc Diner, Baltimore, MD
Opened in 1964 near the Baltimore Beltway-Loch Raven Boulevard interchange (hence its hyphenated name), the Bel-Loc served as one of the inspirations for Baltimore native Barry Levinson’s movie Diner. With its neon signs, chrome stools, and “what’ll ya have, hon?” waitresses, the Bel-Loc still inspires old-school diner fans. “We’ve been around so long that people who came in when they were little are now coming in with their kids,” owner Bill Doxanas says. “We’ve also had three generations of one family working here together.”
Don’t miss: Breakfast. Order the blueberry pancakes or raisin bread French toast, and they’ll think you’re a Charm City native.
1700 East Joppa Road; 410-668-2525
Bel-Loc Rice Pudding
(given by owner Bill Doxanas)
Combine 2 ½ quarts milk, 1 ½ quarts water, and 3 cups sugar; cook until boiling. Add ¾ pound of very starchy rice (such as River Rice). Lower heat and cook about an hour or until mixture looks syrupy. Add a pint of milk, 5 beaten eggs, and a dash of vanilla extract. Mix well, and cook for 1 more minute.
Diner Secret: Short-grain rice has more starch and is best for this recipe.
Mama Dip's Kitchen, Chapel Hill, NC
Mildred Edna Cotten Council grew up watching her mother use the “dump cooking” method that measures ingredients by sight and taste instead of by recipe. Luckily Mildred, also known as Mama Dip, later wrote down her recipes. Otherwise, the family members who helped her open Mama Dip’s Kitchen in 1976 near the University of North Carolina campus wouldn’t be able to make dishes such as Mildred’s succulent pork chops and fried chicken. She also keeps vegetarians satisfied with house specialties like a savory okra-and-tomatoes combination.
Don’t Miss: Community Nurse Macaroni and Cheese (named for the traveling public health nurses who once showed young mothers how to make nutritious meals)
408 West Rosemary Street; mamadips.com or 919-942-5837
Community Nurse Macaroni and Cheese
(from Mama Dip’s Family Cookbook)
- 1 cup dry milk
- 1⁄4 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce (Diner Secret!)
- 1⁄2 pound shredded sharp cheese
- 1⁄2 stick butter or margarine, melted
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 box (16 ounces) elbow macaroni, prepared as directed
- 1⁄2 cup bread or cracker crumbs
Preheat oven to 375°. Mix together the first eight ingredients in a big bowl.
Stir in the macaroni and pour into a 1 ½-quart baking dish. Top with bread or cracker crumbs. Bake for 45 minutes. Serves 6.
Arnold's Country Kitchen, Nashville, TN
Owners Jack and Rose Arnold have been serving country music stars, downtown workers, and ordinary folk in their little red restaurant for 27 years. You’ll usually find Jack and several of his children in the kitchen, turning out some of the city’s best fried chicken, roast beef, and fried green tomatoes. Lunch and dinner also come with your choice of baked or grilled cornbread.
Don’t miss: The creamiest banana pudding you’ll ever eat. It’s one of Arnold’s down-home dishes that helped the restaurant earn a James Beard Foundation “America’s Classics” award this year.
605 8th Avenue South; 615-256-4455
Arnold's Fried Green Tomatoes
(given by Jack’s son, Kahlil Arnold)
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 whole green tomatoes
- 2 cups apple juice
- 5 eggs
- 1 dash Tabasco (Diner Secret!)
- 2 cups cornmeal (seasoned with salt and pepper)
- 2 tablespoons basil
1. Cut the tomatoes into 12 to 15 slices. Coat slices in flour. Dip in mixture of apple juice, egg whites, and Tabasco. Dip into mixture of cornmeal and basil.
2. Fry in oil until brown.
Celebration Restaurant, Dallas, TX
These days, Dallas’s West Lovers Lane area is better known for upscale boutiques than down-home cooking. But long-time residents know some of the city’s tastiest pot roast and freshest vegetables wait down the road at Celebration. Since 1971, the laid-back eatery has served classic Southern cuisine with a Texas flair. Diners sitting inside the fieldstone restaurant or outside on the patio dig into plates of spiced-just-right meatloaf and squash casserole topped with garlic and Cheddar cheese. Best of all, there’s no charge for second helpings.
Don’t Miss: The slightly lumpy (so you know they’re definitely homemade) mashed potatoes
4503 West Lovers Lane; celebrationrestaurant.com or 214-351-5681
Elizabeth's Southwest Cornbread
(given by owner Ed Lowe)
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- ¼ tsp. salt
- ¾ cup yellow cornmeal
- 1 ½ oz. melted butter or margarine
- 1 can (15-oz.) kernel corn-drained (Diner Secret!)
- 1 can (4-oz.) diced green chilies
- ¼ cup sour cream
- Whites from 3 large eggs
- 2 ½ tsp. olive oil
- ½ cup grated Cheddar cheese
1. In a mixing bowl, combine baking powder, salt and cornmeal.
2. Add remaining ingredients, and hand mix until well blended. Bake in a greased 8- x 8-inch or 8- x 9-inch cake pan at 350° for 20 minutes or until
golden brown on top.
Strawn's Eat Shop, Shreveport, LA
Owner Buddy Gauthier’s must-stop spot is known for its colorful murals (such as George Washington eating Strawn’s pie and a Roman coliseum) and its decadent icebox pies (strawberry is our flat-out favorite). Buddy has passed down his diner secrets to his daughters who now operate two more eateries―Strawn’s Eat Shop Too and Strawn’s Eat Shop Also.
Don’t miss: The low-fat omelet (served for breakfast and lunch). Made with thin slices of turkey and jalapeño peppers, this delicate dish helps you get over the guilt of eating two slices of strawberry pie.
125 Kings Highway; strawnstoo.com or 318-868-0634
Strawn's Strawberry Glaze
(given by owner Buddy Gauthier)
- 1 1⁄3 cups sugar
- 1 1⁄4 cups whole milk (plus 3 Tbsp., set aside)
- 2 tablespoons margarine
- 1⁄3 cup cornstarch
- 4 whole eggs
- 1-2 drops of red food coloring
Mix sugar, 1 1⁄4 cups milk, and margarine until sugar dissolves. Mix cornstarch in separate bowl with 3 Tbsp. milk. Add cornstarch/milk mixture to the sugar, milk, and margarine. Cook in a double boiler for 8-10 min., stirring constantly. Add eggs. Cook 2-4 min., stirring constantly. Put cooked filling in a bowl, and beat out lumps with mixer. Add red food coloring. Let cool 30 min. on counter and 2 hrs. in refrigerator.
Diner Secret: Spread glaze in piecrust; top with strawberries.