Food & Drink

Three best bets for a meat-and-three lunch in Columbus

The regulars at Evelyn’s Café don’t use mobile devices during lunch.

This is an older crowd, reflective of an earlier time in this Rose Hill neighborhood of small, textile-worker homes. They’re too busy yakking around Formica-top tables for six, working through the day’s meat-and-three.

It is Southern fried chicken on Tuesdays, the busiest day of the week, servers say. For $8.95, you get the chicken, your choice of three sides — don’t miss the dry lima beans cooked in fat meat — with two pieces of corn-cob-shaped cornbread and tea.

A neat option is substituting one of the sides for the day’s dessert.

Open early for breakfast. No credit cards.

And, the fact that mobile devices aren’t ringing is a plus.

Evelyn’s Café, at 2601 Hamilton Road, is one of the oldest — if not the best known — of the city’s neighborhood cafés. Better known are the Royal Café — the oldest of the three — and Minnie’s Uptown Restaurant.

At a time when many are focusing on the new, trendy, restaurants coming to the downtown, it’s worth taking a closer look at the city’s remaining neighborhood cafés, many in business for fifty years or more — and thriving today. Much is to be learned from them, customers say: close by, affordable, familiar, authentic.

Evelyn’s Café is housed in a two-story, red brick structure, built at the turn of the last century. Waverly Pharmacy occupied the building from 1906 to the early 1960s, according to city directories. The pharmacy’s name, in fading white-painted letters, can still be seen near the top of its north side.

The building is important for its age: it was one of the first commercial buildings in the Rose Hill section of Hamilton Road, and the oldest remaining. It’s famous, too, in popular culture. Its south side is tagged with the name of the iconic British band, “The Clash.” Local legend has it the graffiti is from the 1970s or ’80s.

The café was opened in 1961 by Evelyn E. McGuffey, a Baptist church woman and seamstress, whose husband Frank was to become the Columbus police chief. Evelyn’s modeled the characteristics of Southern neighborhood cafes, often referred to as “meat and threes.”

The reference comes from Nashville, say food writers Jane and Michael Stern, where a lunch menu based on one meat and three sides, served with cornbread and sweet tea, became “an incantation to lovers of paper-napkin cuisine.”

Two others have owned Evelyn’s Café, Queenie Sands briefly in the early 1970s, and the current owner, Sara L. Adams, who took over in 1971.

“Customers from 45 years ago, their children and now their grandchildren eat with me,” Adams says.

The charm of the place is that not much has changed over the decades. One cook has been with her more than 30 years, Adams says. She replaced the windows after bullets shattered the originals and she swapped out the restaurant’s sign after the old one broke.

Adams, 81, is rarely in the restaurant these days, still laid up some from a leg-crushing car accident in 2002. But husband Stan and daughter Kim are often there, and Sara stays in touch with the staff and regular customers by phone.

In addition to the regulars, others drop in when traveling through Columbus. A TripAdvisor reviewer from Destin, Fla., says he’s been coming to Evelyn’s for 37 years. The corn sticks, he says, are “as good as you’ll find anywhere.”

A Washington state couple, Nancy and Chuck Watson, came for lunch with her Aunt Opal and Uncle Bill after being away for some years. “As I expected,” Nancy says, “the changes were minor … and that, my friends, is a good thing.” Still others drop in seasonally. Hugh Rodgers, a retired history professor who volunteers in the public library, says his family buys a gallon-or-so of the cornbread dressing every Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Two more lunch spots

Here are dining notes from two other, not-to-be-missed, neighborhood cafés: Royal Café and Minnie’s Uptown.

Lili Mae Starr, owner of the Royal Café, 600 11th Street, has presided over this meat-and-three lunch spot for decades. The food is carefully prepared, properly seasoned, and always comes with tea.

The Monday through Friday crowd is a mix of lawyers and judges, businessmen in ties, construction workers, even ladies who lunch.

Order the seasonal Veggie Dinner for $6.50: in summer, for example, creamed corn, fresh spinach, macaroni and cheese, sliced beefsteak tomatoes, served on a plastic food tray with a cornbread muffin.

Minnie’s Uptown Restaurant, 104 Eighth Street, offers comparable fare, cafeteria style. Lunch is served in the surround of restored, 19th century homes. Busy at lunch on weekdays, but fast service and reliably good food. The mac and cheese — a vegetable in the South — is highly regarded. Minnie’s also offers whole cakes and pies to go.

John F. Greenman created the travel site, He is a retired professor of journalism at the University of Georgia and the former president and publisher of the Ledger-Enquirer.

If you go

Evelyn’s, 2601 Hamilton Road: Open for breakfast and lunch, 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays, 706-322-9436.

Royal Café, 600 11th Street: Open for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays, 706-322-9149.

Minnie’s Uptown Restaurant, 104 Eighth Street: Open for lunch, 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays and Sundays, 706-322-2766.