The South still has some wonderful cafeterias, but this style of you-point / they-serve food service is rare in the North, where pile-your-own-plate buffets are more the rule. One great exception to that pattern is Indianapolis. Home of America’s earliest cafeteria (in 1888), the Circle City still has a handful of top-notch cafeteria restaurants where every day is like Thanksgiving. Among the best is Gray Brothers south of town in Mooresville. Open since 1944, it is a huge place, very deluxe as far as cafeterias go: leaded glass windows in the doors, plenty of tasteful nick-nacks for décor.
Almost any time you walk in, it will be crowded, but that’s no problem because the cafeteria line moves fast; and besides, your wait takes you along the “preview line,” which allows you to study the scores of food items from which you will soon be choosing. Although the trays are especially big ones, if you’re like us, you’ll find yours fully occupied with dishes of food well before you get to the rolls and beverages at the end of the line.
It’s hard to know what to recommend because we’ve never had anything at Gray’s we didn’t like. Among the most memorable dishes are fried chicken, which has an ultra-flavorful crust that pulls off the pieces of the bird like chewy bacon. The way things work in Gray’s line is that you tell the servers what entrée you want; they put it onto a nice flower-patterned partitioned plate then slide the plate down to the vegetable area, where it is piled with whatever sides you desire.
Who can resist the cornbread stuffing? Or mac ‘n’ cheese? We also love the heartland salads, especially creamy pea and carrot-raisin-marshmallow. Desserts are dazzling, with whole pies arrayed on shelves below the individual slices (many pies get bought and taken home). The Indiana favorite, and a specialty of Gray’s is sugar-cream pie … as simple and pure and good as the name suggests.