Meat-and-Three: Eat Like A Nashville Local
This Nashville-born concept is short for one meat and three vegetables, and I’m serving up 25+ Meat-and-3 restaurants grouped by location.
First, a little history: the term “meat-and-three” is believed to have originated in the employee cafeteria of May Hosiery Mill in Nashville where, in the ’30s, they served up a choice of meat and vegetables, plus bread, for 25 cents. Today prices are higher ($8-15 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’.
A Quick Primer
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 and Barbara’s in Franklin.
- Meat-and-threes boast flavor and value—not healthiness. Take your tofu- and quinoa–loving taste buds elsewhere.
- Most 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 other customers 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 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; it 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.
- Most aren’t open for dinner; some are weekdays-only so check their website before you go.
Probably Nashville’s most famous meat-and-three (a visit from “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” as well as a lot of national press) closed in January 2022 because it looked like the property was selling. The deal fell through so the restaurant is back in business. It’s open Monday-Friday 11am-3pm offering its time-honored heroes: roast beef, meatloaf, fried chicken, and some mighty fine desserts.
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.
Just north of the Ryman Auditorium, this hybrid is a sports bar with a slate of southern favorites including meatloaf, barbecue, country fried chicken, and catfish.
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.
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 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 $18 for lunch at this writing). They have the same arrangement for breakfast so prepare to eat like a lumberjack. There’s also a Monell’s at the Manor near the airport.
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.
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 Germantown location 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.
Show some self-control at Ramzy’s because you have to walk past a plethora of pies before you feast your eyes on the meats and vegetables in the cafeteria line. Oh, heck. Dessert first! We tried the moist German chocolate and coconut cakes; both were worthy of seconds. Next time, it’s Pie Day. (Chess is recommended by my buddy John.) Choose from six meats and maybe 8 or 10 vegetable/salad options. We went with the planks of crunchy, flaky catfish. The mac’n’ cheese was creamy good though not memorable but there was some love in those green beans. My lunchmate, another meat-and-3 fan, proclaimed Ramzy’s a winner.
→ Here’s a complete list of local food and drink vendors at the airport including two meat-and-three style restaurants: Swett’s and Puckett’s.
Yes, they serve more than biscuits although their country breakfasts are popular. The fried chicken is tasty and they’re known for their pies so save room for dessert.
Just up Gallatin Road from Nashville Biscuit House is this hidden jewel. Hidden? You’ve got to want to find it because it’s in the basement of a building. Look for the red awning. I went with the fried chicken, mac’n’cheese, hot water cornbread and green beans. High marks for the first three but the green beans have a killer flavor that make me want to know their secret. Trivia: has the only billiards table I’ve seen in a family cafe’.