Tucked back in a strip of three stores that also includes Auto Zone and Heavenly Hands Hair Studio, Ray’s Diner does not beckon to hungry passers-by. Indeed, it seemed to me that the morning I found it, not a single customer other than me was a stranger. To many of the guys and gals who walked through the door heading for a booth or a seat at the short counter or to get an order to-go, Stacy the waitress didn’t bother to say hello. She simply said, “Hash browns, crisp with extra onion and a sausage omelet? Or “Bowl of grits with cheese?” The customers nodded to acknowledge that yes, they wanted the usual, then sat down for coffee and conversation.
I may have been a newcomer, but I was well taken care of. Stacy advised that if I liked omelets, I should order one, because Ray’s are “outrageous.” Vernell, the cook preparing lunchtime dishes in the nearby open kitchen, called out to agree about the omelet but added that I had to have hash browns, too.
“What about grits?” I called back, having been told by a tipster that grits were the menu’s main attraction.
Vernell grinned ear to ear and nodded: “You must have grits!”
Yes, Ray’s grits are obligatory. They are dense and creamy, full-flavored – a truly satisfying breakfast cereal. And the hash browns? They are chunky ones (what I would call home fries), a bonanza of crunchy-crisp and tender pieces, large and small, laced with a few shreds of potato skin and a torrent of caramelized onions. The extra-crisp hash browns my neighbor got were beautifully brittle, but I like the regular order’s mix of supple pieces of potato mixed in with the harder ones.
Grill chef Alex makes omelets that are a sight to behold. They are huge and loaded (as well as topped) with ingredients of choice, the eggs themselves soft and sunny and not the least bit overdone-leathery or underdone-runny as is the case in so many lesser-quality omelets.
When Vernell told me that biscuits are one of the few things not made from scratch, I was surprised, because they are good ones, fresh and radiant and just unctuous enough to make fingers glisten. Vernell said that they sampled several outside biscuit sources until they found one that made ones up to the standards of Ray’s exemplary other food.
Ray’s may be primarily a breakfast place, but its meat-and-three lunch is mighty good, too. I love the beefy, full-flavored meat loaf with its authoritatively seasoned brown gravy and the gentle-tempered chicken and dumplings. Variegated macaroni and cheese casserole with its creamy custard and crunchy edges belongs on a short list of the region’s best. Also forkworthy: squash casserole, candied yams, braised cabbage, carrot-raisin slaw, and cornbread dressing.
The only disappointment is desserts. Cobbler and banana pudding are sweet for sure, but lack the culinary brio of everything that precedes them. And the pre-fab pies are simply not very interesting.