This Nashville-born concept is short for one meat and three vegetables, and I’ve listed 30+ Meat-and-Three Restaurants grouped by location.
(Updated: 11/19/19) The origin of the term “meat-and-three” is believed to be the employee cafeteria of May Hosiery Mill where, in the ’30s, they served up a choice of meat and vegetables, plus bread, for 25 cents. Today prices are higher ($7-12 average) but the food hasn’t changed much. Whether described as home cookin’, soul food, comfort food, southern favorites, diner fare or meals like Grandma made, it’s dang fine eatin’.
The rules of eating at a meat-and-three
What isn’t meat counts as a vegetable (except for bread–rolls*, biscuits or cornbread–which is free with your meal). This results in the reclassification of rice and gravy, mac’n’cheese, Jello, dumplings and other odd choices as veggies. Some things you just have to accept.
*Rolls are time-intensive so most are of the pre-packaged variety with the notable exceptions of Swett’s in Nashville, Barbara’s in Franklin and City Cafe’ in Brentwood (see below).
- Meat-and-threes boast flavor and value—not healthiness. Take your tofu- and quinoa–loving taste buds elsewhere.
- Most meat-and-threes have designated days for various entrees such as fried chicken, roast beef, or fried catfish. If you’re seeking a special item, check the restaurant’s website or call ahead.
- Some are sit-down joints where a waitress will probably ask “What you gonna have, hun?” Others serve cafeteria-style so you can window-shop before you buy. Observe the customers in front of you and assimilate.
- Be patient. Lunch lines can get long at popular places but cafeteria-line operations tend to move pretty fast. If possible, go early or late to miss the 11:30-12:30 crowd.
- Most of these places are small and sometimes there are more people than places to sit. If your party of two sits at a table for eight, expect someone to ask to join you. Be friendly.
- Tipping gets tricky at the cafeteria-style places. Some are completely self-service but if someone comes around to refill your glass or take your tray, don’t be a cheapskate. If you order at the counter, there’s often a tip jar; we won’t kill you to drop a dollar in but it’s not required.
- Save room for dessert—mostly pies, fruit cobblers and/or banana pudding. This is the South so pie selections will likely include chocolate, chess and pecan.
- Most meat-and-threes don’t have liquor or beer licenses, primarily because their core customers are working people who shun alcohol while on the clock. You’ll find exceptions—but most of these are catering to the tourist or business crowd.
Arnold’s: Our Most Famous Meat and Three
Featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” Arnold’s Country Kitchen has become famous but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the best. Scope things out in the generally fast-moving cafeteria line and make your selections. Roast beef is a signature entree’ and their desserts rock. If you’re near the Gulch or SoBro, it’s also pretty convenient. Even after expanding, the line can sometimes go out the door. Alas, their free parking is no more.
Try these 30+ Meat-and-Threes.
I’m not ranking them–just giving you a location guide to places I’ve enjoyed:
This little cafe’ moseyed out of folksy Leiper’s Fork to downtown Franklin and expanded bigtime in the heart of downtown Nashville. Unlike almost every other place, it has a full bar. Meat-and-three items form its core offerings but you can order salads and its awfully fine pit barbecue. It’s popular so don’t expect immediate seating during dining rush hour. For speed, sit at the bar.
(photo above) Katie’s been gone for ten years but this little shotgun shack of a restaurant marches on in the heart of the business district. It’s located in the century-old Arcade, essentially the forerunner of the mall and a fascinating little place. First, the good news: Its location, perfect for anyone staying or working north of Broadway; if some members of your party are into the meat-and-three vibe, it has a dozen restaurants as neighbors; eat in the atrium for some fun people-watching; the nicely seasoned and crunchy fried chicken and the moist cornbread muffin were in the “very good” zone. The not-so-good: the broccoli casserole was essentially a puree’ of broccoli and cream of mushroom soup with some cheese melted on top; the mac’n’cheese was just kind bland. I’ll go with other vegetables next time. Open M-F, 10am-4 pm.
I love the customer diversity of this little place a couple of blocks south of Music City Center: locals, tourists, conventioneers, black, white, blue-collar, white-collar, no-collar, music business types. Their steam table is like the South’s greatest hits with specials every day. Tip: the food is similar to Arnold’s but it’s a couple of blocks closer to the center of SoBro and typically it’s not as crowded. You may have to scrounge for parking.
Technically it’s a few blocks southwest of SoBro and four blocks from the Gulch so let’s stick it here. Look above for a description.
The name’s a head scratcher but they’ll serve you breakfast and lunch cafeteria-style. Country ham is a staple on their morning menu. If I tell you that oxtails and chitlins are in regular rotation, do I need to mention it’s a soul food joint? Almost entirely locals. Not a lot of seats so be prepared to make your order to-go if you hit it at a busy time. Check their website to make sure they’re open when you want to visit.
It barely fits as a meat-and-three because Big Al is a real-deal chef who creates curveballs like chipotle raspberry chicken in addition to sandwiches and the meat-and-three regulars. The best scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten. So unhip, it’s hip. If he’s not too busy, you might coax a gospel tune out of Big Al.
The menu is of the meat-and-three variety–but not the dining arrangement. Here you join other diners at long tables and pass platters of food around family-style. It’s all-you-can-eat and the price reflects it (about $15 at this writing). They have the same arrangement for breakfast so prepare to eat like a lumberjack. There are two other locations: Monell’s at the Manor near the airport and Cafe’ Monell’s near 100 Oaks (same food selection but cafeteria style, not all-you-can-eat).
Yes, they serve more than biscuits and they’re noted for their pies so save room for dessert. Pretty tasty fried chicken too.
In business since 1939, it’s so authentic that it has starred in a number of music videos and photo shoots. In addition to traditional burgers and shakes, you can order a “plate lunch” which translates to “meat-and-three.”
Another old-timer, it’s more famous for its burgers but its menu includes an assortment of meat-and-three type meals. Their fried zucchini comes with a really zippy sauce for dipping. These days they’re only open for lunch.
Sylvan Park/The Nations
The divey little diner on Charlotte Avenue used to serve up second-hand smoke and good (though barely seasoned) eats but, for the past few years, it’s only been the latter. Mostly locals. Great neon sign is icing on the cake. Open for breakfast. If you don’t like their dessert options, cross the street to old-school Bobbie’s Dairy Dip.
Don’t confuse this working-class restaurant with a bar called The Centennial a few blocks away as I did. Located in an industrial area, the emphasis here is on a budget-priced southern cooking. A meat-and-three will set you back $8.25 at this writing; three vegetables with bread is just $4.75. My hamburger steak wasn’t all that flavorful and the brown gravy may have come from a can. Yet, the kitchen scored big with the seasoning of their cabbage and green beans. I hear breakfast is righteous too. Not my favorite destination but a good pick for inexpensive eatin’. Closes at 2pm
They’ve been in business since 1954 serving up the meat-and-three’s greatest hits; in fact, it seats more people and has more extensive offerings than most places, plus a few hard-to-find items like pigs’ feet. My last visit was the best in recent memory: country style steak with well-seasoned green beans and baked squash. On my previous visit, I got off to a bad start with the beef tips–a fatty first bite–but things leveled off after that. Bonus points for making their rolls from scratch. They also provide the culinary power for the restaurant in the Johnny Cash Museum and serve a limited menu in their mini-restaurant in the Southwest concourse at the airport.
The atmosphere of this Bellevue outpost is a little uptown but meatloaf, catfish, white beans and fried okra are regular offerings so I think they make the cut. In addition to its comfort food menu, you can order salads and items off the grill.
We’re talking way out west for this iconic little roadside inn that has become a big-time legend, primarily due to its heavenly biscuits. Breakfast is big here but there are meat-and-three selections and a few gourmet-ish items thrown in for good measure. Two words here, friends: peach preserves.
Green Hills/100 Oaks/Melrose
Unlike the all-you-can-eat mothership in Germantown and its antebellum sister near the airport, this is a cafeteria-style version. Same recipes without the need to eat your weight in fried chicken. You’ll save some bucks and won’t have to spend an extra hour on the treadmill.
Call it an upscale meat-and-three of the cafeteria line variety. A much larger variety of homemade salads than other places and really good sweet tea. There’s free parking around back if there are no spaces out front. The photo at the top of this blog is one of their veggie plates with green bean casserole and sweet potato casserole.
Next door to the much-loved Martin’s BBQ is a humble grocery with a secret weapon–the steam table in the back. For $5, I walked away with a heavy load of delicious chicken and dressing, sweet potatoes and slightly dry cornbread. Friday is catfish day and they turn out some of Nashville’s best. Hint: get there early because steam tables can make food get droopy. Lunch is served 10am-1pm.
A bit off the beaten path (unless you’re a truck driver or cemetery worker), a recent stop vaulted this place to my hall-of-fame list. Everything I tried had a little something special going on in the flavor department. Mac’n’cheese is one of my litmus tests and theirs is creamy with a real cheese kick. The roast beef was of the carved-when-you-order variety–good stuff and unusual for a meat-and-three. George, the owner and head chef, convinced me to try their green bean/pinto bean combo; I’ll order it again. Soups at City Cafe’ can count as a vegetable so I went with his famous chicken tortilla soup. Plus cajun cornbread–moist with a nice kick. The brownie was as chocolate-y as humanly possible. Second trip was the as-delicious-as-promised meatloaf “with zesty sauce,” perfectly seasoned red beans and rice, and a spicy broccoli casserole.
Don’t let the name throw you. First came the Dairy Queen facsimile, then came a meat-and-three across the parking lot and then came the Flood of 2010 that washed it all away. It relocated nearby with a cafeteria-style set-up and two(!) lines. The signature dessert here is the chocolate fried pie; imagine a turnover filled with pudding and you’re on your way deep-fried Southern glory.
Located in a Publix strip mall, the environment doesn’t scream home-cooking but that’s just what you’ll find–along with salads, sandwiches and few more refined options. Their chicken and dumplins are a beautiful thing. Pretty bodacious breakfasts too.
For an out of the ordinary dining experience, sit down to a Southern meal in an antebellum mansion. Originally built in 1898 and rebuilt following a fire in 1929, the food line-up here is similar to its other locations but it gushes with genteel charm. The manor is tucked away in a grove of trees on what we locals consider the back side of Nashville International Airport.
City Cafe’ Brentwood
Formerly in a cozy house, it’s now in an innocuous strip center around the corner from SteinMart. Many of its recipes come from the cherished-but-departed Hap Townes Restaurant, including his famous stewed raisins. They try to please everybody with a upscale items, hot chicken and the standards including liver and onions, fried pork chops, and turkey and dressing. Huzzah for in-house yeast rolls. It was formerly the sister operation to same-named place near Donelson but two owners later, they’re completely separate.
Don’t let the fern-bar furnishings fool you. (They inherited the furniture when another restaurant went under.) The menu is a mix of southern cooking, sandwiches, and, for the more health-conscious, salads and lemon grilled salmon. Wasn’t a fan of the chicken fried steak but pretty much everything else is right fine.
Burgers, sandwiches, wraps, salads and such dominate their menu but they maintain their roots with a nice selection of entrees and vegetables. It’s a tad more refined than some of the longtime favorite meat-and-threes but hey–this is Brentwood.
A very local downhome breakfast/lunch/dinner spot amid a sea of fast food chains. Skip Arby’s and try their tasty roast beef, biscuits I’d challenge anyone in Nashville to beat, and creamy squash casserole. If it’s Friday, go for the all-you-can-eat catfish. Good desserts too. Not a tourist in sight.
Mallard’s Country Cooking
In addition to the usual suspects on the menu, you can order off the grill (but why?) Good gravy, they’ve got country cooking in their name. Plus their website tells you when you can get live music along with your chicken’n’dumplin’s. With your meat-and-three priced at $6.45, it’s a dang good value. Tourist-free.
It was love at first bite at this tiny little cottage. I have no idea how they can push such an extensive (and delicious) menu out of their minuscule kitchen but we are blessed for it. On their long menu board, it’s typical for them to offer seven entrees and twelve sides. The chicken and dressing (pictured above) is a wonder. So are the hoecakes (that’s cornbread, fyi) and the green beans were nicely seasoned. If you like retired people, you’re gonna love Cal’s.
It’s been around since the Sixties and, judging by the faded photos of Conway Twitty, Porter and Dolly, the decor has too. Seemed a bit cheaper than other meat-and-threes where you can get an entree’ like fried chicken and three sides for just $7.50. For a little place, their menu is big spanning from American grill to Greek food. It gets very mixed reviews online. I got the sense that it’s somewhat of an institution for folks in the community. Foodwise, I wasn’t fond of the hush puppies but the catfish gets my thumbs up.
The reincarnation of a soul food joint formerly located in the East Nashville/Inglewood area, it’s now in Due West Plaza, a strip center anchored by a Sav-a-lot grocery. My barber raved about it so I stopped in for a late lunch. I went with some old reliables: The green beans were well-seasoned, the mac’n’cheese creamy with a bit of a kick. Their version of hot water cornbread is slightly sweet with the look and chew-factor of a fritter–not bad, just different than I’ve ever had. Proof that it’s into soul food: the rotating menu includes pig’s feet and ribs.
You’ve got to want to find this spot because it’s tucked into an innocuous building at 107 Memorial Drive. Fried chicken (served only on Wednesday and Saturday) but they’ll fry you up catfish upon request any day you please. Love the chicken and cornbread; not as crazy about the flavor of the green beans. Note: this place is LOUD when it’s busy.
Off Hillsboro Road, near the Grasslands community, Barbara’s is a hybrid between a meat-and-three and a tearoom. Here you’ll find some of the best roast beef I’ve ever tasted and I could drink the gravy–it’s that good. The tearoom is evidenced with entrees including poppyseed chicken and crab cakes. And this is Baked Goods Heaven, led by their heavenly made-from-scratch yeast rolls. A little pricier but did I mention they make their own yeast rolls?
Located in a Franklin/Cool Springs strip mall, it is notable for a little-known fact: it birthed hot chicken sensation Hattie B’s. Yep, the place was swarming with patrons on “Hot Chicken Day” so the Bishops decided to specialize with a spin-off. All their other choices are solid too.
Also in a strip mall, it’s about the hippest version of the genre…and a little healthier. Traditional offerings (and a few updates). Get the sweet potatoes and cornbread; you’ll thank me.
Look above for the details of this sweet (but sometimes loud) reincarnation of the original restaurant/country store in Leiper’s Fork.
And then there’s Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. Yes, it’s a chain but it started in nearby Lebanon, TN so it is homegrown. I tend to order breakfast and my parents always ordered the beef stew but the menu includes meatloaf, roast beef and catfish too. About a dozen options for vegetables including their tasty this-is-not-a-vegetable dumplins. Over the years, they’ve added some citified entrees too. For a high-volume operation, I give them credit for consistently delightful cornbread and biscuits. Ten locations within 20 miles of Nashville including one near Opryland Hotel. TIP: When your serve asks, “cornbread or biscuit?”, get one of each.
City Cafe’ East, Cal’s Country Kitchen, Lana’s Copper Kettle, Monell’s (at any location).
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Work off that meal