Strawberry pie, blueberry pie, cherry pie. Fluffy lemon meringue and sticky, crunchy pecan. Chocolate cream, banana cream, coconut cream, all stacked with gravity-defying layers of whipped topping.
I’ve never forgotten the cake line at Gray Brothers Cafeteria in Mooresville, Indiana, 10 miles south of the Indianapolis International Airport. As a boy growing up in nearby Bloomington, a trip to Gray Brothers, where there is always cake for dessert, was a very special treat. And it’s the pie that still draws me to this Indiana institution every time I’m back in the Hoosier state.
Seating more than 400 behind its limestone facade with a sloped ceiling and dark wood beams, Gray Brothers, which opened in 1944, is just one of the cafeteria-style restaurants that remain popular throughout Indiana. As Indianapolis-based author Sam Stall notes, “Indiana seems to have this weird propensity for coffee shops.”
Indiana has plenty of old-school restaurants, like The Oasis in Plainfield or Nick’s Kitchen in Huntington, that serve all-day breakfasts alongside classic Hoosier favorites like pork tenderloin sandwiches, deep-fried breaded meat spills on the bun. The state has soul food restaurants that draw on black culinary traditions and all-you-can-eat buffets, including the Amish-owned Blue Gate Restaurant in Shipshewana, where for one price you can fill up on soups, roast beef and mashed potatoes. of potatoes. .
But for many Indianans, like Stall and me, coffee shops hold a special place in our hearts. You grab a tray and slide it along the metal railing, and the abundance of options is arranged along the line for you to choose from: salads, hot entrees, vegetable sides, and freshly baked rolls, cakes, and pastries, especially cakes. You help yourself to the cold plates, which are prepackaged and placed behind glass partitions. As you move down the line, servers are ready to collect your requested entrée and sides, handing you a heaping plate.
“You can see what you’re going to eat before you order it,” explains Casey McGaughey, president of MCL Restaurant & Bakery, which his grandfather Charles founded as the MCL Cafeteria in 1950. “You can shop with your eyes.”
“For an entire generation, or maybe two generations, this was a perfect substitute for that mythical meal at Grandma’s house. It was the best comfort food,” says Stall, who researched the state’s steam table restaurants and their classic dishes for his book, Tray Chic: Celebrating Indiana’s Diner Culture.
A Brief History: Indiana’s Early Coffee Shops
Coffee shops are not unique to Indiana. Like many states in the Midwestern and Southern US, Indiana was once home to numerous cafeteria-style restaurants.
One of the first launched in Indianapolis in 1900 as Laughner’s Dairy Lunch. The Laughner family eventually operated a dozen Laughner coffee shops in Indiana. In the mid-1900s, its dining rooms were decorated in faux Tudor style, but its home-cooked menus weren’t much different from those still offered by diners today. Laughner’s operated in the region for over 100 years.
In the mid-20th century, when the food industry focused on efficiency and mechanization, cafeterias were seen as an innovative, high-tech way to deliver food, McGaughey says. They also served a broader population at a time when dining out was reserved for the wealthy. “A big key in the founding of MCL was to bring affordable good food to everyone.”
Among the 13 locations that MCL currently operates in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, its Indianapolis branch at 10th St and North Arlington Ave has been serving for 70 years, the chain’s oldest still-operating location.
Indiana was also once home to Jonathan Byrd’s, which claimed to be the largest privately-owned coffee shop in the US. Stall recounts that founder Jonathan Byrd gained admission to Cornell University’s School of Hotel and Restaurant Management with an essay on the symbiotic relationship between the US interstate highway system and cafeteria-style restaurants. In the era before fast food, Byrd proposed that drivers could pull off the road at a roadside diner and quickly fill their plates with a full home-cooked meal.
Byrd did not stay long at Cornell. The budding entrepreneur returned to Indiana to open a coffee shop in Greenwood, on the south side of Indianapolis. Following his own advice on the best location for cafeteria-style restaurants, he located his new restaurant near Interstate 65. Byrd’s operated from 1988 to 2014.
What to eat in line at the cafeteria
If the word “cafeteria” conjures up images of mystery meat at school lunch or boring food at the hospital, think again.
Fried chicken is the must-try main course in Indiana diners. Both its light and dark meat versions are among the most popular dishes at Gray Brothers and MCL. This crispy-skinned chicken that somehow manages to stay crispy on the cafeteria line is a Hoosier staple, long served in farmhouse kitchens and after-church Sunday family dinners. Even the founder of KFC, Colonel Harland Sanders, was born and raised not in Kentucky, but in Indiana.
Another popular cafeteria dish, according to Indianapolis food writer Jolene Ketzenberger, is a Manhattan roast beef. To make this open-faced sandwich that locals claim was invented in Indianapolis, you start by stacking slices of roast beef on white bread. “You cut the sandwich in half diagonally,” she explains. She separates those diagonals. Then you put a tablespoon of mashed potatoes in the middle and pour sauce over everything. And that’s a Manhattan roast beef.”
“It’s not a take-out sandwich,” he warns. “It’s a knife and fork sandwich.” There is also a turkey version, with roast turkey substituted for beef.
In Indiana’s cafeteria lines, you’ll also find hot items like meatloaf, chicken and noodles, and fried catfish, along with a variety of house-made sides, including mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and kale. . Diners don’t line up for anything “terribly complicated or esoteric,” Ketzenberger says. They are hungry for traditional homemade dishes, served in hearty portions.
There are green salads, but for many people they are not worth the space on the tray. Why eat lettuce when you can eat fruit-filled Jell-O? “I don’t know how Jell-O salad became a thing,” Ketzenberger says, “but Jell-O salads are always in line at the cafeteria.”
Hot rolls are always available, or you can choose a cinnamon roll fresh from the oven.
and cake. So many cakes. “That’s the dessert that coffee shops are known for,” says Ketzenberger. She suggests trying two Indiana pie specialties, if you can find them: sugar cream pie, a custard-filled pie that has unofficially been dubbed the state pie, and persimmon pudding, normally a late-fall dessert. “Persimmon pudding isn’t really a pudding like chocolate pudding. It’s more like a British pudding, like a very moist cake. It’s very Hoosier. And it’s delicious with whipped cream.
Not all Indiana diners follow the fried chicken and cream pie model. Russian immigrants Louis and Rebecca Shapiro moved to Indianapolis and opened a small grocery store in 1905. By 1940, when their sons took over the business, it had begun its transformation into the kosher-style diner now Shapiro’s Delicatessen.
According to Shapiro’s president, Brian Shapiro, its location on the south side of Indianapolis was once the center of a vibrant Jewish community. The cafeteria format worked, particularly during the World War II-era labor shortage, when the family could not find enough staff for table service.
The first hot dish Shapiro served is still on the menu: spaghetti and meatballs, made from Rebecca Shapiro’s recipe in a heavier Russian style and with different spices than the Italian-American version. While Shapiro’s is not strictly kosher, the dumplings contain beef but no pork or cheese, in keeping with Jewish dietary rules. Says Brian Shapiro, “It’s more of a meatloaf meatball.”
These days, Shapiro’s dishes offer up deli classics, from matzah ball soup and bagels and smoked salmon to chopped liver and stuffed cabbage. They are known for their stuffed sandwiches, including corned beef, pastrami, and brisket. The family also runs a quick-service Shapiro’s at the Indianapolis International Airport.
Don’t wait to try a Hoosier diner
In 1988, food writers Jane and Michael Stern wrote in the new yorker that “many cafeterias are helping to preserve a regional cuisine that is unadulterated by fashions.” With constant lines out the door of Indiana coffee shops like Gray Brothers, MCL, and Shapiro’s, this statement rings as true today as it did more than three decades ago.
However, Stall worries that this Hoosier foodie tradition may be slowly dying, with only these few popular coffee shops left. In the same way that visiting an elderly relative shouldn’t be put off, “if you want to eat in the cafeteria again, do it now,” he advises. “It is not a 21st century mentality. What they are serving is the same as what you would have gotten in 1980 or 1880.”
But many others think that Indiana’s long-running coffee shops are here to stay. After all, as MCL’s Casey McGaughey says, “everything is better with cake.”