A while back, I was asked for dining suggestions around Atlanta by a guy who likes to eat Roadfood, but doesn’t like that he likes it. By that I mean that he is a fashion-conscious person who wants to know only those restaurants anointed by recognized authorities. Back when we wrote a Roadfood column in Gourmet magazine, the column’s placement in an esteemed publication gave culturally insecure eaters permission to enjoy places they probably wouldn’t otherwise have let themselves enjoy (because said places were dowdy, culinarily unhip, nutritionally incorrect). The logic was that if a review appeared in the esteemed Gourmet, it must be OK to like the restaurant!
I did not advise this person going to Atlanta to eat at Matthews Cafeteria; and frankly, I suspect that if we had suggested writing a review of Matthews Cafeteria for Gourmet, even the editors there might have nixed the idea. You see, to understand this place requires a hard core appreciation of such Roadfood cues as ancient walls painted institutional beige, a raucous cafeteria line where food is heaped upon the steam table with little regard for beauty, vegetables that are purposely overcooked, creamed corn that is crazy-creamy to the point that the kernels are a minor element, mac and cheese with macaroni so soft that it is inseparable from the cheese, and strawberry shortcake sweeter than a Twinkie. Yes, I actually like all these things … and I love the fried chicken, for which no excuses need be made. It bears a fine, fragile crust, just salty enough to enhance the meat, which ranges from dripping moist to chewy bark infused with flavor.
Mostly, it is the experience of dining at Matthews Cafeteria that will win a Roadfooder’s heart, even more than the unrepentant food. There are better vegetables around Atlanta, and there’s fried chicken at least as good, but I doubt if there is any place that can compare to Matthews Cafeteria itself. The feel is mid-20th century Dixie (but integrated) — a friendly, folksy Main Street eatery that exudes hospitality. A picture-taking stranger like myself soon felt right at home at the red-checked tablecloths where townsfolk chat. I hesitate even to call it charming, because most markers for charm are lacking, but if you love Roadfood, check it out. You will know what I mean.