When it comes to old-school comforts, Magnolia Room remains near and dear

A customer moves down the cafeteria line at Magnolia Room in Tucker. Martha Williams for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Martha Williams

Credit: Martha Williams

A customer moves down the cafeteria line at Magnolia Room in Tucker. Martha Williams for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Growing up in South Georgia, there was no shortage of comfort at my mother’s table. She cooked almost every day, and we rarely ate out. So, when we did, it was almost an adventure — a drive to the Florida Gulf Coast for seafood, or an after-church visit to a Morrison’s cafeteria in nearby Tallahassee.

It may sound mundane, but to a farm boy in the 1970s, a trip to a mall restaurant was like a visit to another world. The cuisine — from fried fish amandine with rich tartar sauce to baked chicken with green beans and mashed potatoes — was just a rung above country, but the atmosphere was transformative. I still can remember the prime rib, glistening pink under the heat lamp, and the greasy sheen of jumbo fried shrimp.

Iced tea is a popular beverage choice at Magnolia Room in Tucker. Martha Williams for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Martha Williams

icon to expand image

Credit: Martha Williams

Pushing my tray down the line, it all looked picture-perfect, and I wanted the biggest piece of everything, be it chopped steak or fried chicken, pecan pie or coconut cake. The servers actually seemed to enjoy our company and filling our glasses again and again with iced tea.

Just when I thought cafeterias were a thing of the past, along came Magnolia Room Cafeteria in Tucker. When this time-warpy spot opened in 2017, I remember stopping by with Atlanta Journal-Constitution food editor Ligaya Figueras and mansplaining to my new Midwestern friend that the Jell-O creations most definitely were not desserts. No, ma’am, they were salads! (And if you believe that, macaroni’s a vegetable.)

Over time, Magnolia Room has become near and dear. It’s where I go when I want comfort food, and maybe a little tenderness. This past birthday, I was feeling especially blue. I’d just had a root canal. My dog, Shirley, had multiple issues. I hated life. I wanted to cry.

The servers at Magnolia Room remain cool and collected, even as the kitchen grows steamy. Martha Williams for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Martha Williams

icon to expand image

Credit: Martha Williams

My neighbor offered to take me out to eat, assuring me that cost was not a consideration, that we could go anywhere my heart desired. Well, I did not hem, and I did not haw. I did not pick Bone’s. I did not mooch my way into Mujo’s. I did not care for oysters and cocktails at Kimball House.

I wanted the dining equivalent of a hug from my Mama. I wanted Magnolia Room.

I chowed down on fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, turnip greens, jalapeño cornbread and coconut cream pie; Drew got chopped steak with onions. Not a crumb was left. We left happy and full.

You can get a generous helping of Southern nostalgia at Magnolia Room in Tucker. Martha Williams for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Martha Williams

icon to expand image

Credit: Martha Williams

For this generous helping of Southern nostalgia, we owe one Louis Squires, a former department store executive and buyer who thinks cafeterias are worth preserving. Over time, he has made it his mission to improve the food at Magnolia Room.

And, by gosh, he has.

When people ask me where to go for old-school Southern, I send them to Tucker. Recently, when one young social-media follower posted a picture of his tray, with both collards and turnip greens, I felt like I had accomplished something.

Squires proudly procures his bird from Springer Mountain. Before it hits the frying pan, it’s brined all night. This technique seasons it thoroughly, and ensures peak tenderness. Indeed, it comes out textbook — crispy breading, juicy innards, irresistible. Vegetables come from Sherry’s Produce down the street, and they are wonderful. Those greens, yes, but also the fried okra, cabbage, field peas, squash, green beans.

How come the cornbread is so moist here, when it can be dry as hell at other places? They wrap the loaves in plastic and don’t take them out until you ask. Doh. I used to like the crackling bread; now it’s the jalapeño.

Nothing comforts like gravy, and Magnolia Room dispenses it by the boatload. Country fried steak, smothered pork chop, turkey and dressing, mushroom chicken, turkey wings, baked catfish with dressing, chicken and dumplings. I expected my pork chop to have a bone in it. It came nestled over a plate-size puddle of mashed potatoes, swimming in gravy — and boneless. No knife required. I became inebriated with the pleasures of glossy brown gravy.

On Sundays, the cafeteria can overflow with the after-church crowd. But the staff never misses a beat. The servers remain cool and collected, even as the kitchen puffs with steam. They don’t seem to care if you can’t make up your mind, if you eschew that piece of chicken, if your glass is perpetually empty.

The interior decor at Tucker's Magnolia Room has a midcentury department store vibe. Martha Williams for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Martha Williams

icon to expand image

Credit: Martha Williams

Try to pause to take in the decor, as well.

This is where Squires’ department store background kicks in. Room dividers are topped with artificial magnolias in Chinese pots. Colorful glass panels zigzag across the walls. One day, I sat down to discover a shiny ceramic cougar, illuminated by an interior light bulb, on my table — a little midcentury kitsch to keep me company while I shoveled down potato salad, eggplant casserole, turnip greens, yellow rice, cornbread and a giant slab of fried catfish with a dish of tartar sauce to rival Morrison’s.

A selection of desserts is available in the display case at Magnolia Room. Martha Williams for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Martha Williams

icon to expand image

Credit: Martha Williams

Sundays seem to bring extra blessings — ambrosia, potato salad, that infamous lettuce and tomato salad with mayo. You might spy random red-velvet cake alongside the banana pudding, chocolate pie and strawberry shortcake, which is served in plastic molcajetes, of all things.

Quietly tucked away in the corner of a nondescript shopping center, crowned with a Williamsburg-style cupola that feels like a relic of the ‘70s — the decade that formed so many of my Morrison’s memories — Magnolia Room is a beacon of comfort in a busy, modern world. In its ability to impart warmth and hospitality with the honest food of days gone by, it remains unsurpassed.

Magnolia Room Cafeteria. 4450 Hugh Howell Road, Tucker. 770-864-1845, magnoliaroomcafeteria.com

Sign up for the AJC Food and Dining Newsletter

Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.

About the Author