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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Mississippi’s Top Joints (and that’s a good thing)

March 7, 2017

I love “joints.”

Whether I am traveling across America or walking through a small village in Europe, I am always looking for a joint where the locals gather.

Definitions of a “true joint” vary. Some people look at something called a joint in a negative light. Those are the same people who think good food can only be served in a fancy environment with stuffy service and a menu filled with hard-to-find exotic ingredients. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Beauty is in the eye of the joint diner.

To me, a joint is a place with excellent food, the food takes precedence, and is head-and-shoulders above the service and atmosphere. Actually, to be a true joint, the atmosphere needs to be an afterthought.

A joint is never themed or contrived. The atmosphere should have just evolved organically without much thought. Service is usually efficient, always friendly, but never stuffy.

Joints are my kinds of places. I am all about the food. There are times when I want atmosphere and pampering, but those dining-out aspects never rank higher than food quality and taste in my book.

Here is a list of my favorite joints in Mississippi:

5. Peggy’s, Philadelphia: People drive for hundreds of miles to eat the fried chicken at Peggy’s. And when I say “people,” I mean me, along with tens of thousands of other people throughout the years. Some people might not call Peggy’s a joint, because it is in a small, old house just off of Main Street in the middle of town. It’s not dark, it’s only open for lunch, and it’s a meat-and-three. But to me, it’s a true Mississippi gem, and a joint in the most beautiful sense of the word.

The chicken is as good, if not better, than your grandmother’s ever was. It’s a serve-yourself ordeal with freshly cooked vegetables served in your momma’s Sunday china bowls that sit on top of hot plates and griddles to hold the food warm. There is no cashier, just a basket where loyal devotees of Peggy’s chicken make their own change. It is 100% pure Mississippi, and that is a good thing.

4. Leatha’s, Highway 98, Hattiesburg: Whenever a friend uses the term, “BBQ Joint” this is what he or she means. Leatha’s opened near the Pearl River in Foxworth, Miss. in the mid 1970s. Leatha Jackson and/or members of her family have been running the place ever since.

The barbeque is sweet, the beans are sweet, and the Cole slaw is sweet. If you don’t like “sweet” then Leatha’s is not your place (and you’d be wrong, by the way).

The Jackson family is warm and friendly, the atmosphere is uber casual, and hungry travelers from all over the globe have eaten the ribs for over four decades. Any place with raw plywood floors and ceilings with beach towels as curtains has no other choice than to be a “joint.”

3. Country 35 Diner: Middle of nowhere near Sandy Hook, MS on the way to Bogalusa, LA— Country 35 Diner owner, Candia Love embodies the best of Mississippi. She is a hard-working single mom who started her restaurant from scratch and is beloved by all who enter her establishment. She was born with an over-abundance of the hospitality gene, has an infectious laugh, and never meets a stranger.

One hasn’t dined in Mississippi unless they have dined on Love’s rabbit and rutabagas— and spent some time with— or at least gotten a hug from, Ms. Candia.

2. Dave’s Dark Horse Tavern, Starkville: Some call it a “joint,” others call it a dive. There is no “divier” dive than Dave’s. It is glorious in its “diviness.” It’s a dark labyrinth of low-ceiling awesomeness with years of spilt beer in the carpet and bathrooms that are just above rest-stop level. There’s loud live music, college-student food, and one of my top three pizzas in Mississippi. Dave is one of the coolest guys in the business. He’s friendly and laid-back, and his hard-working staff takes their cue from the boss.

1. Donanelli’s, U.S. 49 South, Hattiesburg: There is no doubt that Donanelli’s is the quintessential joint. I love it. Travelers heading south on U.S. 49 past the North Gate of Camp Shelby have probably passed that small little green house hundreds of times without noticing. It’s their loss.

Donanelli’s is straight out of central casting for a joint. It’s dark, loud, and there are thousands of signed dollar bills hanging from the ceiling, walls, and doors (many of them with names of my children and their friends on them). The tables are basic plastic laminate topped with butcher paper, the chairs are a mish-mash of whatever might have been available when someone went looking for chairs at the used restaurant equipment warehouse, the floors are concrete, and Skynyrd and Hank Jr. are blasting from the pawn-shop PA speakers in the corner. There is no way to walk into that environment and not feel comfortable. I love it.

The steaks are grilled behind a glass window in the dining room, but their barbeque ribs— and I have eaten a lot of barbeque ribs all over the country— are as good as any I have eaten anywhere, at any time, in any state, at any price. Period. They are smoked over pecan wood without the aid of artificial fuel and served— as ribs should be— dry, with the sauce on the side. The steaks are hand-cut and grilled over a live fire. During the season they have crawfish, too.

As with most dives, the menu is limited. That is a good thing. Focus on what you do well, and just do it. There are a few appetizers and a salad that comes in a small Styrofoam bowl. A Donanelli’s waitress once told me, “Your dressing choices are: Ranch, ranch, and ranch. You can call it whatever you want— thousand island or blue cheese— but it’s still gonna taste like ranch.” Spoken like a true joint waitress.

Dive or joint, call them whatever you want. Just make sure and call me when you go to dinner.

View today’s recipe: Creamy Garlic Salad Dressing

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