Atlanta Orders In: Magnolia Room still a prime spot for fried chicken and people watching

This takeout order from Magnolia Room includes turkey and dressing with mashed potatoes, green beans and a yeast roll; country-fried steak with rice, deviled eggs, fried okra and cracklin cornbread; fried chicken with collards, macaroni and cheese, and jalapeño cornbread; and pecan pie and coconut meringue pie. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This takeout order from Magnolia Room includes turkey and dressing with mashed potatoes, green beans and a yeast roll; country-fried steak with rice, deviled eggs, fried okra and cracklin cornbread; fried chicken with collards, macaroni and cheese, and jalapeño cornbread; and pecan pie and coconut meringue pie. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Louis Squires believes some cultural traditions are worth preserving. A longtime department store buyer and executive, the North Carolina native has a particular fondness for old-school Southern cafeterias. He considers them “great equalizers,” places where barriers of race and class dissolve like sugar in tea.

Squires loves cafeterias so much, he bought one.

Today, his three-year-old Magnolia Room in Tucker — a temple to trout amandine, congealed salad and yeast rolls — remains a place where ladies appear in Sunday go-to-meeting clothes to relish meals with kith and kin. Only now, they often wear masks to match their show-stopping chapeaus.

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Magnolia Room in Tucker is an old-school cafeteria with affordably priced Southern food. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Magnolia Room in Tucker is an old-school cafeteria with affordably priced Southern food. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

“There was a lady in this Sunday with a hat with silver sequins, and she had her mask with silver sequins,” said Squires, 65. That’s the sort of sight that makes Magnolia Room as sweet a spot for people watching as for eating pecan pie.

However, when the pandemic hit, Squires had to cease dine-in service. That gave him a chance to restyle the room as a series of privately partitioned “coves” that give privacy, a sense of protection, and safe distancing. It also allowed him to work in a little department store-style froufrou, such as dramatic faux-magnolia branches in blue-and-white chinoiserie pots perched around the booths.

All along, though, Magnolia Room never stopped takeout. “There are a lot of people that are dependent on our food,” Squires said. “This is where they eat four or five, six times a week. They are able to do it, because of the variety we offer, and the fact that the menu changes daily, and the fact, I guess, that it’s not trendy. It’s solid food. You don’t get tired of it.”

As regulars at the old S&S Cafeteria in Embry Village for 15 years, Squires and his partner, Bob Pilla, found a sort of chosen family there. They even gave the staff Christmas gifts. When the 43-year-old cafeteria lost its lease, so a Kroger could expand, Squires felt it his duty to step in. He bought the physical trappings and moved 24 employees to a new home on Hugh Howell Road.

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Magnolia Room owner Louis Squires has added “coves” that allow patrons to dine safely and comfortably. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Magnolia Room owner Louis Squires has added “coves” that allow patrons to dine safely and comfortably. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

It took him a while to wean the kitchen from making mashed potatoes with powdered milk, and using mediocre chicken. Over time, he introduced Duke’s mayonnaise, fresh veggies from Sherry’s Produce nearby, and Springer Mountain Farms bird. Apparently, folks could taste the difference. Before COVID-19, Magnolia Room was serving as many as 1,100 guests on Sundays.

As a South Georgia kid who thought Sundays at Morrison’s was the be-all and end-all, I’ve been a fan of Magnolia Room from the beginning, when I had to explain to a couple of non-Southern colleagues that the gelatin creations were “salads,” not desserts. (Right!) It’s where I go when I’m starving for macaroni and cheese, collard greens, cornbread and sweet tea.

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Magnolia Room Cafeteria in Tucker remains a place where ladies still appear in Sunday go-to-meeting clothes. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Magnolia Room Cafeteria in Tucker remains a place where ladies still appear in Sunday go-to-meeting clothes. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

As Squires so aptly stated, the beauty of a cafeteria is that you can sit down and eat within minutes. You can ask for a little more gravy, or say, “Oh, I want that piece.”

I was delighted when Squires told me his October sales were on par with last year. Though the pandemic caused him to pause plans to expand, he recently signed a lease that will add 2,000 square feet to the dining room.

And, because weekends can be slammed, Magnolia Room now has a takeout shop with a separate entrance, for Saturdays and Sundays only. This allows a quick, grab-and-go experience. There’s even a separate food line for those who like to hem and haw over their catfish and pork chops.

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It doesn’t get any more Southern than Magnolia Room’s fried chicken with macaroni and cheese, collard greens, deviled eggs, jalapeño cornbread, and pecan pie. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
It doesn’t get any more Southern than Magnolia Room’s fried chicken with macaroni and cheese, collard greens, deviled eggs, jalapeño cornbread, and pecan pie. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

MAGNOLIA ROOM CAFETERIA

Menu: classic Southern

Alcohol: no

What I ordered: fried chicken (dark), with collards, mac and cheese, cracklin cornbread and an Arnold Palmer; country-style steak, with rice and gravy, fried okra, deviled eggs, jalapeño cornbread and unsweetened tea; turkey and dressing, with green beans, mashed potatoes, a yeast roll and sweet tea; side of broccoli salad; pecan pie and coconut meringue pie. Fried chicken is the way to go. I really liked the mac and cheese, green beans, fried okra. And I loved the dressing, broccoli salad, coconut pie and sweet tea. Pass on the deviled eggs. The steak had a bit too much of a packaged gravy flavor, and the turkey was reminiscent of a hospital cafeteria — rather thin, generic sliced breast, rather than whole bird.

Service options: dine-in; takeout; delivery via DoorDash

Outdoor dining: no

Mask policy: staff, yes; strongly recommended for customers

Address, phone: 4450 Hugh Howell Road, Tucker

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays

Website: magnoliaroomcafeteria.com

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