By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published January 1994, Gourmet Magazine
A few years back, country singer Ray Stevens invited a New York friend to join him at one of his favorite Nashville lunchrooms, a place called Hap Townes. The New Yorker was a professional efficiency expert whose business was telling restaurateurs how to be successful. When he and Ray arrived at Hap Townes, a one-room café in an unlikely neighborhood east of Music Row, a cluster of people waiting to get in hovered outside the door. Inside, the line of customers who hadn’t yet eaten mingled with a line of those who had eaten and were waiting to pay the cashier. The expert studied the confusion and told Ray Stevens, “It will never work.”
It does work. It has worked fine since 1921, when Hap Townes started serving hot lunch from an eight-seat pie wagon close to the Nashville fairgrounds. And it has worked even better since 1946, when Hap and his son Little Hap opened their small cookshop at its present location, near what was then the thriving May Hosiery Mill. Laborers from the mill needed a hearty meal that was fast and cheap, so the Hap Towneses-père et fils- set up a system whereby you enter the restaurant and walk up to a service counter connected to the tiny open kitchen. A member of the staff is standing there-stove to his right, pans of hot food in front, griddle in back. He shows and tells you what there is to eat that day. Make your choice. Then he dips your plate, In Tennessee, to dip a plate is to pile it high with food straight from the stockpot. Take your plate to a table and commence eating; if you want seconds, return to the counter and get more. When finished, tell the person at the cash register what you ate and pay accordingly. It is fast (you can be in and out in fifteen minutes) and it is cheap-the most deluxe meal there today costs $4.45.
Although modern Nashville has hundreds of very efficient franchised restaurants that serve food fast and cheap, none is of interest to devotees of Hap Townes. This creaky old joint is a cherished tradition, and not just among urban laborers with a limited lunch hour. They are joined by well-off white-collar executives, aspiring musicians, and Grand Ole Opry superstars who haven’t forgotten their roots, as well as a large coterie of corn-bread-and-stewed-tomato fans from Nashville and beyond who all consider Hap’s one of the nation’s country-cooking treasures. It isn’t anything like a fast-food restaurant, and it sure isn’t one bit like a four-star dining room in New York or any other city. It is an eating experience unique to the South, especially favored in Tennessee, and at its very best in Nashville, where plate lunch is a way of life.
The midday meal served at Hap Townes and maybe a dozen other places in Nashville and surrounding communities is known as “meat-and-three.” The name says what it is: one meat from the day’s selection of three to six choices and three vegetables from a daily list that is twelve or more items long. There are variations on the theme. You can choose to eat meat-and-two or even meat-and-one; and many customers come for meat-and-three without the meat, meaning an all-vegetable plate of three or four selections.
This distinctive style of dinner (“dinner” is the proper term for hot lunch hereabout, “supper” being the late-day meal) is served on heavy plates with raised partitions that keep the pungent collard-green juices from running over into the sugary yam casserole, and it is always accompanied by biscuits or corn bread (or both) and a tall glass of iced tea (presweetened or not), followed by pie, pudding, or cobbler. The formula varies from place to place, and it may be listed on a printed menu merely as “plate lunch,” but meat-and-three is the way true believers tend to refer to it.
Like the establishments that offer it, the term meat-and-tree is simple, direct, and on the level. In Nashville it has a pulse-quickening effect, like the work “barbecue” does in Memphis. Meat-and-three is a seductive incantation to lovers of paper-napkin cuisine; it’s a phrase that holds the promise of glorious vittles served with the utmost informality. One factor is constant about meat-and-three, and the fine plate lunch restaurants form Memphis to Myrtle Beach; The “three” part of the equation represents Southern vegetables in all their well-cooked, vigorously seasoned, cheese-enriched, bread-crumb-gilded, hog-jowl-flavored, margarine-sopped splendor.
For example, at Hap Townes one day we sampled big, silk-textured butter beans shimmering in their juices; peppery puffs of hominy; sheaves of limp steamed cabbage with a jolt of fatback flavor; tomatoes stewed with shreds of toast until the mélange had become a zesty relish; apples cooked with cinnamon so they were transformed into a translucent caramel; diminutive crowder peas whose insides wanted to bust form their taut skins; real mashed potatoes seasoned and swirled into a lumpy mound; and toothsome stewed raisins. Of course there was corn bread (as there is every day at Hap’s)-griddle-cooked tan oval cakes with the fetching tang of buttermilk. And for dessert hefty cherry cobbler was dished out steaming hot with an orb of ice cream quickly turning into rivulets on top. The meats included country-fried steak and roast beef- both smothering in gravy- and chicken ‘n’ dumplings served in a bowl of thick, sunny broth.
That same day over in the Green Hills neighborhood at Sylvan Park, another well-respected mean-and-three establishment, sixteen different side dishes (all considered “vegetables” in these parts) were offered, including delicious sodded clods of powerful fresh turnip greens and pungent mashed turnips, luxurious macaroni and cheese, dainty kernels of corn in cream sauce, syrupy candied yams, pork-infused baby lima beans, and gelatin fruit salad. The meats included roast turkey with dressing, sugar-cured baked ham, and breaded pork cutlets. Every meat-and-three platter was served with a choice of hot, plate biscuits with creamy insides or weighty chunks of corn bread so buttery-rich that they made our fingers glisten when we picked them up.
And down in Shelbyville, an hour south of Nashville, Pope’s Café had a meat-and-menu featuring a vegetable roster that included macaroni with stewed tomatoes, pinto beans and crowder peas, crisp disks of deep-fried squash, turnip green soaking in their pot liquor, mashed or steamed potatoes, and sliced fresh tomatoes. If the truth be known, good as the vegetables at Pope’s are, the real reason to eat in this classic café on the town square-where every table has its own jukebox and where the counter is ably served by waitresses Janie and Wanda-is ham. It is country ham, and it is gorgeous: deep-dark red, dry-textured but beaten with moisture, rimmed with crystalline amber fat. It has the majestic taste that only well-fed and well-aged pork develops-lusty, complex, mouth-watering- and is so dense that the serrated knife provided is of little use slicing through it (frankly, we’ve worried about bending the tines of the lightweight forks). So finger food it is.
Little Hap sold Hap Townes in 1985, when he was sixty-two, but he agreed to join us for lunch as his old place this last summer so we could learn about meat-and-three from the veteran whom aficionados know as the master. Hap is a striking figure of a man, six-foot-five and leans as a string bean, fair and dignified with a mellifluous baritone voice that could belong to a Shakespearean actor. Conversation was difficult because so many customers who have been eating at Hap Townes all their adult lives wanted to say hello and find out how their old friend was enjoying his retirement. Folks carrying plates full of food stopped on their way from the steam table and asked how he was doing. He said fine, then asked each of them, “How’s it going, brother?” as sincerely as if her were their minister or personal physician. Hap has a good life on the other side of the lunch counter. He plays golf when his hands, stained from years of kitchen work, permit; and he has for some time collected art, including the Impressionists, whose work he first admired in Europe during World War II (Hap’s business card shows an artist’s palette and brush.)
There is something marvelously incongruous about this gentleman, James Beverly Townes-nicknamed Little Hap long before he sprouted up so tall. He was raised in the lunch-counter business and spent his working life wrangling pots and pans and dipping plates, and yet he carries himself with the silky refinement of a Tennessee aristocrat. He stands up politely from his chair to greet each passerby. And, after pleasantries are exchanged, he sits back down and scrupulously rearranges the paper napkin on his lap before tearing off a flap of corn bread or hoisting a deviled egg. When he discusses the fine points of dipping, breading, and skillet-frying chicken he makes the process sound elegant; and when he begins to purr superlatives about mashed potatoes and the way a touch of gravy completes their perfection the man becomes a meat-and-three poet.
The experiences of eating meat-and-three frequently includes a little descriptive rhapsody by the person dishing it out, as well as a peek into the pan or pot and the tempting vision of a helping spoonful lifted out so that you can imagine how fine it will look if the server puts it on your plate. But no one has ever done it as tantalizingly as Hap Townes.
How fondly we recall the first time we ate at Hap’s place, in 1980, and Hap himself was dipping plates. He was not merely serving food; he was mesmerizing customers. Hap recounted the joys of each available item in a low chant, like an infatuated beau doing his sweetheart’s many wondrous traits. “Smooth, white mashed potatoes…” he crooned, “touch of gravy for them?… nice warm corn bread, hot off the griddle… cool sliced tomatoes from the garden… a fine, plump deviled egg.” As he spoke, he dipped spoons into saucepans and rearranged the chicken so its dumplings glistened in the light. As the partitioned plate in his hands filled with food, he eyed it with sincere admiration and announced, loud and proud, “Stack it up high!”
Terry Paysinger, who bought Hap Towne’s restaurant in 1985, continues the tradition of talking blue-plate specials. “Touch of gravy on those potatoes?” he asks as seductively as the devil himself, followed by blandishments about his plump bitter beans and tender cabbage and hot corn bread. And, if you ask him about dessert on Friday, be prepared to hear an enthusiastic reverie about blackberry cobbler. This is a young man who believes in meat-and-three and therefore has kept Hap Townes exactly as it was when he bought it, including the name.
“I am convinced this city is the meat-and-three capital of the world,” Terry said, noting that even as close as Birmingham and Chattanooga, the once-common good old plate-lunch eatery has gotten scarce in recent years; and in many small towns it has been replaced by fast-food hamburgers or chicken-in-a-bucket. One reason meat-and-three is rare is that it takes hard work and skill to prepare it. Dot Whiby, the chef at Hap’s (and before that, at Nashville’s Liz’s Café for nineteen years) explained how on Tuesdays, she starts cooking fried chicken about five in the morning. Fried chicken is probably the most popular dish for Hap Townes offers- every Tuesday now for decades. The chicken is dipped in milk and eggs, then in seasoned flour, and fried in deep iron skillets, three or four pieces at a time, until it turns shatteringly crisp. Several hundred pieces are kept warm in a low oven, but once lunchtime starts they vanish. “it takes me all morning to cook it, and it’s eaten up in ah hour.” Dot laments (the window of opportunity can start as early as eleven A.M.).
There are some meat-and-three customs that make fastidious epicures cringe: As in so much of the South, vegetables are often flavored with margarine rather than butter; and nearly all the region’s lunchroom chefs delight in using canned soup for their casseroles. But when it comes to the vegetables themselves, potatoes in particular, shortcuts are taboo. Hap Townes recalls when instant mashed potatoes first came on the market and he tried serving them. After a few days of watching patron’s sorrowful reactions he went back to mashing them on his own. “From then on,” Hap recalls, “every time I saw a new customer, I made sure to tell them that they were getting real mashed potatoes when I dipped their plate.”
Hap credits Veora Chatman with many of the recipes that have made his namesake so attractive for so long. Veora was the cook who started with him and his father in the forties and ran the open kitchen for twenty-four years, and it was she who introduced one of the café’s trademarks- dark, syrup-thick, profoundly sweet stewed raisins. But of course Veora never used a written recipe, and most of the things she cooked are canonical soul-food dishes, the kinds of good, basic things every real Southern cook- white and black- does naturally and well, and with his or her own personal twist. Stewed tomatoes for instance, are made using as recipe from Little Hap’s grandmother wherein they are simmered with enough toasted light bread (the local term for white bread) and sugar and butter to metamorphose into an amazingly flavorful compote. A short colloquy in the kitchen among Dot Whitby, Robinson, who gets Hap’s customers their dessert and iced tea, revealed that most older cooks they know make stewed tomatoes with biscuits; but all three women prefer the modern way, using toasted light bread.
When you dine at Hap Townes, expect to be called “hon” by Sue when she helps you find a seat or ask if you want some pie, as well as by Dot if she is dipping plates. You also might likely be directed to a table with strangers; sharing is often necessary because there are only eight tables in the house. “it’s like a big family,” Terry Paysinger explains, seated a fellow customer with us after politely asking, “Do you mind company?” And it is almost impossible not to strike up a conversation. Above the din of the air conditioner, Hap’s bubbles over with plate-lunch chatter. We honestly believe that this boisterous tone is unique to the cafés of Tennessee, where, to put it plainly, people love to gab.
Between eleven and one, Hap’s is jammed and everyone is plowing into hot lunch. It can be a hundred degrees outside, but that doesn’t in any way affect these hungry people’s longing for a good square meal in the middle of the day. Not a salad not a simple sandwich, no dainty fruit-and-yogurt snack will satisfy. Hap explains why Southerners habitually favor a big meal at noontime: “You are out there in that field so long, you need sustenance. And, even if some of those who eat with us aren’t laborers, it has become a matter of custom in the South for people to sit down and enjoy a jot meal of meat and vegetables and tea and cobbler. We get some secretaries who come for just three vegetables, and I myself like hot roast beef on corn bread with mashed potatoes and gravy, which is, technically, meat-and-one.”
In addition to the tables in the Hap Townes dining room, there is a short counter against the back wall, where six swivel stools provide diners a view of some of the hundreds of eight-by-ten glossy publicity photographs, hung all over the pine paneling, of country-music singers. Nearly every picture has an inscription from the star praising Hap Townes’s food; kudos from Little Jimmy Dickens, Hank Williams, Jr., Donna Fargo, Buck Owens, Ricky Van Sheldon, all the greats. Hap recalls the days Randy Travis, then a hopeful unknown, came in a couple of times a week for lunch with his wife, Libby. Finally Hap asked him, “Do you work around here?” and not long afterward the Travises invited Hap to one of Randy’s first paid gigs across town. When baseball star Reggie Jackson came to visit, Hap remembers, “We fixed him up good; pork chops, mashed potatoes, turnip greens, fried apples, and corn bread. He ate it all, and I came by and joked, ‘If you hadn’t eaten so much, you’d have room for blackberry cobbler and ice cream. He said ‘Bring it on!’ and I said, ‘How are you going to hit home runs if you eat all that food?’”
Little Hap isn’t quite out of the restaurant business. Since retiring, he has served as a consultant for a few new local plate lunch eateries, including The City Café in Brentwood and Bob’s Place up in Goodlettsville. “So many people tell me they are tired of fast food,” Hap says. “They want equality, at a fair price. They want a food old plate lunch.” At this, he leans across the Formica table and lowers his sonorous voice to a conspiratorial tone. “I tell you, the meat-and-three business is wide open today. There are so few people doing it, and so many who long for it. I’ve told those I helped open restaurants, ‘It’s wide open if you serve good food. You’ve got to make that corn bread hot and serve it straight off the griddle, You’ve got to put that fatback in your cabbage. You’ve got to mash those potatoes every day.’”
Hap Townes (permanently closed)
493 Humphrey Street
Sylvan Park (Green Hills Location)