This past weekend I was in Starkville, Mississippi to visit my daughter— a freshman in college— and to catch a football game. Sunday morning my friend Steve and I ventured out for breakfast. I knew it was going to be a challenge on a busy game weekend to find a place that wasn’t packed, and that assumption proved to be correct.
At 9:45 a.m. The Starkville Café on Main Street had a few dozen people standing outside on the sidewalk waiting for a table. The quoted wait was around 30-45 minutes. I asked the manager if we could sit at one of the “regular’s tables.” He pointed to two open chairs at the large round six-top in the front of the restaurant and Steve and I sat down with four gentlemen who were already in different stages of eating breakfast.
Over the years I have noticed that The Starkville Café has two tables for regulars. One is a long, rectangular table near the back of the dining room— “the liar’s table”— that seats 10 guests. The other is the aforementioned six-top in the front which is called “the window booth,” even though it’s not a booth but a standard-issue table with six chairs.
When I asked the difference between the two tables of regulars, Darin Beall, manager of The Starkville Café said, “The back table is full of old guys who talk about what they used to know. The front table is slightly younger guys who talk about what they think they know.” I love that.
The Starkville Café has been serving breakfast and lunch since 1945. Some of the men at the liar’s table have been eating there almost the entire run. Beall estimates that 40 guys alternate in and out at the liar’s table every day at breakfast. Most return for lunch. Many drink from their favorite coffee mug that was brought from their home and is stored in a special place until the cup’s owner comes in for breakfast or lunch. The servers know which cup belongs to each regular. I love that, too.
What interests me is the difference between the front table and the liar’s table table. Does someone who typically sits at the liar’s table ever venture 20-feet away to the front table? Are the liar’s table guys warm and welcoming to anyone who sits and joins them, whether from the window booth or just an Average Joe walk-in?
As Steve and I sat with the regulars at the front table, sharing what what we “think we know” we learned that only two were everyday regular patrons. The other two guys were like us and had joined the community table at the front rather than wait for a private table. The two regulars we were with were very conversational, genial, and welcoming.
I like community tables and almost always choose that option when dining in another city. It’s the best way to find out about a town and its people. The first time I ever sat at a community table was at K-Paul’s Restaurant in New Orleans. In the early days of the late, great Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun mecca, all of the tables were wooden picnic tables and there was no choice but to sit with other guests. Years later, while attending classes at The Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley area, my wife and I ate dinner at the community table at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville. That night I told myself that I would include a community table in one of our restaurants in the future. It took 10 years, but when we opened our Italian concept, Tabella, I installed a community table.
Yesterday, as I looked towards the back of the dining room at the liar’s table I noticed that it was occupied— though not with tall-tale-telling septuagenarians, but— by a group of frat guys. The Methodist in me wondered how upset the regulars were when they walked in and someone was sitting at “their table” and in “their seat.” The frat guys didn’t seem to be engaged in conversations that covered what they “used to know,” but were describing, in great animated detail, the previous evening’s activities.
The divisions at The Starkville Café are cut and dried. One is either a liar’s table regular or a front booth regular. It’s like the difference between Republicans or Democrats, West Coast or East Coast, and Bulldogs and Rebels (though one probably won’t find many Rebels in the Starkville Café), never the twain shall meet. Those men come in everyday and sit in the same seat and order the same thing for breakfast, and then they return for lunch. The restaurateur in me loves everything about that. The enthusiastic restaurant customer in me values that.
Most cities in this country have a local breakfast joint where old men are drinking coffee, eating eggs, discussing sports and politics, and solving the world’s problems. I hope that I live long enough to qualify for a seat at a liar’s table. In these days of waning customs and lost traditions, it’s good to see that ritual alive and well.
1 Tbl Bacon grease or canola oil
1 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 tsp Salt
2 cups Milk
2 cups Chicken broth
1 ¼ cup Grits
1 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 tsp Hot Sauce
8 oz Sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
Melt bacon grease over low heat in a 2-quart sauce pot. Add garlic and salt and cook for one to two minutes being careful not to brown the garlic. Add milk and broth and increase heat. Bring to a simmer and slowly pour in the grits. Lower heat and cook grits for 15 minutes, stirring often.
Add remaining ingredients and stir until cheeses are melted. Serve immediately. Yield: eight servings