Indiana Cafeteria Culture – Lonely Planet

Strawberry pie, blueberry pie, cherry pie. Fluffy lemon meringue and gooey, crunchy pecans. Chocolate cream, banana cream, coconut cream, all piled high with layers of gravity-defying whipped cream.

I have never forgotten the selection of cakes at the Gray Brothers Cafeteria in Mooresville, Indiana, 10 miles south of Indianapolis International Airport. As a kid growing up in nearby Bloomington, a trip to Gray Brothers, where they always have cake for dessert, was a particular treat. And it’s the cake that still draws me to this Indiana institution when I’m back in Hoosier state.

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Seating more than 400 behind its limestone facade with a steep roof and dark wood beams, Gray Brothers, which opened in 1944, is just one of the cafeteria-style restaurants that remain popular across Indiana. As Indianapolis-based author Sam Stall notes, “Indiana seems to have this weird fondness for cafeterias.”

Indiana is full of old-fashioned diners like The Oasis in Plainfield or Nick’s Kitchen in Huntington that serve all-day breakfasts alongside classic Hoosier fare like pork tenderloin sandwiches, where the fried breaded meat oozes out of the bun. The state has soul-food restaurants that draw on Black culinary traditions and all-you-can-eat buffets, including the Amish-owned Blue Gate Restaurant in Shipshewana, where you can enjoy soup, roast beef and mashed potatoes for one price be able .

It’s hard to resist the selection of cakes at Indiana’s cafeterias © Westend61 / Shutterstock

But for many Hoosiers, like Stall and myself, cafeterias hold a special place in our hearts. You pick up a tray and slide it along the metal railing, and the plethora of options are waiting for you to choose from along the line: salads, hot dishes, vegetable sides and freshly baked rolls, cakes and tarts – especially pies. You help yourself to the cold dishes, which are pre-plated and covered behind glass partitions. As you walk down the line, waiters stand by to scoop your desired entree and side dishes and hand you a heaping plate.

“You can see what you’re going to eat before you order it,” explains Casey McGaughey, president of MCL Restaurant & Bakery, which his grandfather Charles started as the MCL Cafeteria in 1950. “You can shop with your eyes.”

“For a whole generation, maybe two generations, this was a perfect substitute for the mythical meal at Grandma’s. It was the ultimate in comfort food,” says Stall, who researched the state’s steam restaurants and their classic dishes for his book. Tray Chic: Celebrating Indiana’s cafeteria culture.

The exterior of a famous Indianapolis deli, Shapiro's
Shapiro’s cafeteria was opened by Russian immigrants in 1905 © Chad Robertson Media / Shutterstock

A Brief History: Indiana’s First Cafeterias

Cafeterias aren’t unique to Indiana. Like many states in the Midwest and Southern United States, Indiana was once home to numerous cafeteria-style restaurants.

One of the first, launched in Indianapolis in 1900 as Laughner’s Dairy Lunch. The Laughner family eventually operated a dozen Laughner’s cafeterias in Indiana. In the mid-20th century the dining rooms were decorated in a faux-Tudor style, but the leisurely menus were little different from what the cafeterias offer today. Laughner’s has been serving the region for more than 100 years.

In the mid-20th century, when the food industry focused on efficiency and mechanization, cafeterias were seen as an innovative, high-tech way of delivering food, says McGaughey. They also catered to a wider population at a time when eating out was reserved for the wealthy. “A major key in founding MCL was to provide good, affordable food for all people.”

Of the 13 locations MCL currently operates in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, the Indianapolis location at 10th Street and North Arlington Ave is the chain’s oldest operating location, dating back 70 years.

Indiana was also once home to Jonathan Byrd’s, which claimed to be the largest privately owned cafeteria in the United States. Stall says founder Jonathan Byrd earned admission to the Cornell University School of Hotel and Restaurant Administration with a paper on the symbiotic relationship between the US interstate highway system and cafeteria-style restaurants. In the pre-fast-food era, Byrd suggested that drivers could pull off the freeway at a roadside cafeteria and quickly load their plates with a full, home-cooked meal.

Byrd did not stay long at Cornell. The budding entrepreneur returned to Indiana to open a cafeteria in Greenwood, south Indianapolis. Following his own advice on the best location for cafeteria-style restaurants, he located his new restaurant just off Interstate 65. Byrd’s operated from 1988 to 2014.

Woman chooses food from a cafeteria buffet
The food choices in Indiana’s cafeterias seem endless © FG Trade / Getty Images

What is there to eat in the canteen

If the word “cafeteria” conjures up images of mysterious school lunches or drab hospital fare, think again.

Fried chicken is the must-try staple at Indiana cafeterias. Both the light and dark meat versions are among the most popular dishes at Gray Brothers and MCL. This crispy-skinned fowl, which somehow manages to stay crispy in the cafeteria, is a Hoosier staple, long served in farmhouse kitchens and at Sunday after-church family dinners. The founder of KFC, Colonel Harland Sanders, was not born and raised in Kentucky but in Indiana.

Another popular cafeteria plate is a Manhattan roast beef, according to Indianapolis-based food writer Jolene Ketzenberger. To make this open sandwich that locals claim was invented in Indianapolis, start by stacking sliced ​​roast beef on white bread. “You cut the sandwich in half diagonally,” she explains. “Push those diagonals apart. Then you put a scoop of mashed potatoes in the middle and pour gravy over it. And that’s a roast beef Manhattan.”

“It’s not a pickup truck sandwich,” she warns. “It’s a knife-and-fork sandwich.” There’s also a turkey version, substituting roast turkey for the beef.

Indiana’s cafeteria lines also feature hot dishes like meatloaf, chicken and pasta, and fried catfish, as well as an array of homemade side dishes, including macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, and collards. Guests don’t line up for something “terribly complicated or esoteric,” says Ketzenberger. You’re hungry for traditional home-cooked dishes served in hearty portions.

Green salads exist, but for many people, they’re not worth the space on your tray. Why eat lettuce when you can dig into fruit-filled jelly? “I don’t know how jelly pudding salad became something like this,” says Ketzenberger, “but jelly pudding salads are always in the canteen.”

There are always warm rolls or you can choose a cinnamon roll fresh from the oven.

And cake. So many cakes. “This is the dessert that canteens are known for,” says Ketzenberger. She suggests trying two Indiana pie specialties if you can find them: sugar cream pie, a custard-filled pastry unofficially dubbed state pie, and persimmon pudding, typically a late fall dessert. “Persimmon pudding isn’t really a pudding like chocolate pudding. It’s more like a British pudding, like a really moist cake. It’s very Hoosier. And it’s delicious with whipped cream.”

Not all cafeterias in Indiana follow the fried chicken and cream pie model. Russian immigrants Louis and Rebecca Shapiro moved to Indianapolis and opened a small grocery store in 1905. By the time her sons took over the business in 1940, it had begun conversion to a kosher-style cafeteria, now called Shapiro’s Delicatessen.

According to Shapiro President Brian Shapiro, its location on the south side of Indianapolis was once the center of a vibrant Jewish community. The cafeteria format worked particularly well during labor shortages during World War II, when the family could not find enough table service staff.

The first hot dish Shapiro serves is still on the menu: spaghetti and meatballs, prepared from Rebecca Shapiro’s recipe in a heavier, Russian style and with different spices than an Italian-American version. While Shapiro’s is not strictly kosher, the meatballs contain beef but no pork or cheese, in accordance with Jewish dietary rules. Brian Shapiro says, “It’s more of a meatloaf meatball.”

These days, Shapiro’s Deli serves up classics, from matzo ball soup and bagels and salmon to chopped liver and stuffed cabbage. They’re known for overstuffed sandwiches, including corned beef, pastrami, and brisket. The family also runs a fast Shapiro’s at Indianapolis International Airport.

Don’t wait to try a Hoosier cafeteria

In 1988, food writers Jane and Michael Stern enrolled The New Yorker that “many men contribute to preserving a regional cuisine that does not adulterate fashion.” With never-ending queues outside Indiana’s cafeterias like Gray Brothers, MCL and Shapiro’s, that statement seems just as true today as it was more than three decades ago.

However, Stall worries that this Hoosier food tradition may be dying as only these few popular cafeterias remain. Just as one shouldn’t put off visiting an older family member: “If you want another cafeteria meal, do it now,” he advises. “It’s not a 21st century mentality. The stuff they serve is the same stuff you would have gotten in 1980 – or 1880.”

But many others think Indiana’s long-established cafeterias will stay here. As MCL’s Casey McGaughey says, “Everything is better with cake.”