Review: Magnolia Room offers charm of old-school Southern cafeteria

I’ve got a soft spot for cafeterias.

My last semester of college, I got a job as a cashier at a cafeteria called Garavelli’s.

It meant waking at 5:30 a.m. to clock in at 6. It also meant working with some people with a lot of drama in their lives who let me write about them for my English comp class. It meant a manager, Mary, who let me do homework during downtime. It meant a free meal each shift, including a daily dose of fried eggplant cubes sprinkled with Parm. And pie. So many cream pies, made right there, from scratch, every day.

Like I said, I have a soft spot for cafeterias.

Magnolia Room Cafeteria, which opened in Tucker back in February, is a bit of an homage to S&S Cafeteria on Chamblee Tucker Road that closed last summer after more than three decades in business. A longtime customer, whom folks refer to as “Mr. Louis,” owns Magnolia Room, and he brought with him several former S&S employees.

That all sounds quite in line with cafeteria hullabaloo, because this is a cafeteria of old, just like I remember: a soulful staff working the line, the floor and the register; the immediate gratification (point to food and boom! It’s yours); and the reassuring steadiness that comes from the sameness of staff, patrons, menu, day after day. The only difference between Magnolia Room and Garavelli’s is that Magnolia Room serves Southern food. Garavelli’s offered Midwestern grub.

“How are you doing today?” asked a Magnolia Room employee as I grabbed a tray and began scanning the salad offerings.

“Good. How about you?”

“I am blessed!”

Magnolia Room offers the kind of cheer you love to hear. That same cheer extends into the dining room, where colors of green and blue accent the walls and seats. A vase of real flowers sits on every table. If you become a regular, you can probably claim some “usual” space; they’ll soon know how you like your iced tea.

But tea and water glasses come at the end of the cafeteria line. Let’s start at the beginning, with the salads.

Despite the crispness of the greens, I’m not sold on that lettuce salad with mealy tomato wedges and buttermilk dressing today, but perhaps that will change when tomatoes hit their peak. The shredded carrot salad studded with raisins is a throwback that will please folks who want to go back in time.

Is Fruit Congealed Salad a salad or a dessert? Maybe that depends on how close you feel to the era of the aspic or simply where you grew up. To me, this bright red, bright tasting strawberry version falls in the meal-ender category. After all, it is crowned with a piping of whipped cream. Then again, I spooned into it pretty soon after sitting down, not waiting to finish the rest of the Thanksgiving feast on my plate: juicy roasted chicken, old-fashioned bread dressing that was moist, nicely bound and exuding the savory aroma of dried herbs, a side of glutinous okra, an orange-tinged macaroni salad with flecks of finely shredded cheddar cheese and an airy dinner roll (more on bread later).

Among sides, leave off your tray the sweet, eggy potato salad, the non-cheesy mac-and-cheese and a bland pasta salad. Instead, point to slow-cooked turnip greens, stewed cabbage with bacon, tender, almost creamy black-eyed peas and coleslaw of the tangy, vinegary sort.

Pause to appreciate that none are oversalted. This is, after all, a cafeteria, where oversalting is the norm.

Entrees are where Magnolia Room finds its groove. That roasted chicken had a golden skin that crackled just as you’d wish when knifing into it.

Baked tilapia and trout almondine were both nicely breaded, the flesh flaky and the trout generously coated in nuts. (Trout: Fancy! At Garavelli’s, it would have been bottom-feeder catfish.) But the tartar sauce that accompanied both dishes tasted more of mayo as it lacked any kick of acid.

Dry, shaved roast beef was saved by its jus. Chicken pot pie is recommendable — the filling thick and creamy and loaded with chicken and vegetables — as long as you disregard the clunky presentation once the server’s spoon moves a heaping portion from industrial pan to your plate. This is homestyle.

When breads are made in house, I perk up. Here, you’ll find biscuits, dinner rolls and two kinds of cornbread — jalapeno and cracklin. The biscuits were wanting in flakiness. The rolls, when fresh from the oven, were oversized, fluffy and nearly buttery. Among the cornbreads, the jalapeno version studded with minced red and green peppers was dry and crumbly. That triangle of cracklin bread, though, was moist and singing with pork notes.

Desserts, however, were off-key during my visits. Sweet potato pie was more about sugar than sweet potato, the crust unremarkable. Bread pudding was wet. Egg custard tasted like the baker accidentally dropped a jar of nutmeg into the mix.

Overall, this is better-than-average cafeteria food served by a highly considerate staff in a cheerful place where real conversations take place — and without the need to raise a voice over loud music. When you walk away paying about $12 for a square meal, that’s cheery, too, whether or not you are a card-carrying member of the AARP. (Saturday is Senior Day, which brings 10 percent off the bill.)

There aren’t too many old-fashioned Southern restaurants in Atlanta anymore, remarked one dining partner. Well then, looks like we’re blessed to have Magnolia Room.

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