At a classic Southern “meat & 3,” everybody knows your name — as long as your name is “hon,” “baby” or “sugar.”
Everybody can probably guess your favorite order, as long as you stick with the daily specials list, usually a rotating selection of country-fried steak, baked pork chops, fried chicken or beef tips. Your choice of side dishes will be harder to guess: There will usually be anywhere from 15 to 18 choices, ranging from rice & gravy to macaroni & cheese to pickled beets.
In a true meat & 3, the vegetable list will include things that do not actually come from the vegetable kingdom, like mac & cheese, cottage cheese and macaroni salad. Just accept it without a discussion. Save your breath for the debate on why these restaurants are still called “meat & 3s.” At most of them these days, you usually only get to pick a meat and two sides. (We’ll get to that.)
Now, it has come to our attention that some of you may not know the term “meat & 3.” And yet you’ve probably eaten at one, at least once.
Other parts of the country might have diners or coffee shops. In the South, we have meat & 3s: Country-style restaurants where the food is cheap, the setting is simple (you can fit in wearing anything from church clothes to a fluorescent-yellow work vest) and the atmosphere is friendly — as long as you don’t slow a waitress down.
What do you need to know to identify a true meat & 3 and treat it with respect?
Yes, there’s history
Culinary historians like the late John Egerton, author of the definitive guidebook “Southern Food,” say that the meat & 3 emerged from the days when most people in the South worked on farms. When you got up before dawn to tend livestock and start the field work before it got too hot, you hit midday with a powerful appetite. That was usually when you ate the biggest meal of the day, the one with a whole table of side dishes and at least one substantial main dish.
As people moved away from farms and into towns in the 20th century, that gave rise to the “plate lunch,” an inexpensive and fast lunch for office workers that included an entree, a choice of several side dishes and homey desserts like pies or cobblers. Even if you didn’t live on a farm anymore, you could eat like you did: The plate lunch featured pretty much the same food — familiar, comforting and cheap.
The dated term “plate lunch” has disappeared, but you’ll still see it as a menu category at lunch restaurants.
Why ‘meat & 3’?
Most restaurants now give you a choice of an entree (almost always meat, chicken or fish and almost always something you’d call comfort food) and two sides. So why are they called “meat & 3s”? We have a few theories:
1. It’s tradition, and you should never argue with tradition.
2. You usually get a choice of cornbread or a biscuit along with your sides, so that adds up to three choices.
3. “Meat & 3” trips off the tongue more pleasantly than “meat & 2.” After all, good things always come in threes.
What to expect
1. To find a good meat & 3, go to an industrial neighborhood. Since the clientele are usually working people, you usually find them near warehouses, machine shops and loading docks.
2. Get there at the right time. Most meat & 3s are only open for breakfast and lunch, though breakfast is sometimes served all day and lunch usually starts at 11 a.m. The restaurant may stay open until 3, but people who wait that late may get dried-out cornbread and stale tea. If you want food when it’s hot and fresh, you shouldn’t wait that late.
3. The decor will be simple, with lots of roosters, chickens and pigs. The best seats are usually the booths. Bonus point: Cafe curtains.
4. The menu will be laminated (easier to wipe off) or folded paper. If there’s a chalkboard with specials, make sure you check it before you sit down. Bonus point: Laminated menus with ads for local plumbers, tax preparers and limo services.
5. Get to know the daily rotation. Most places don’t offer everything every day. Macaroni & cheese might be served one day (for some reason, it’s big on Wednesdays) and collards the next. You may never find the elusive day when you can get both steamed cabbage and fried okra.
6. Don’t expect fancy tableware: Most places stick with heavy-duty plastic plates, usually well-worn from a lot of washing. Bonus point: Plates divided into sections, so the potlikker from the collards doesn’t swamp the mashed potatoes.
6. Waitresses (almost always, not waiters) will greet you with some familiar phrase, like “hon,” “sugar” or “baby.” (Bonus point for “baby doll.”) They’re also very busy and never slow down or stop moving. That’s why you almost always pay at the cash register, not at your table. If you walk back to drop off a tip after you get your change, your table will already be cleared and wiped.