The concept is hopelessly dated. So tell us, then, why are there so many good cafeterias left? This year, we’re giving thanks for the keepers of the flame—the best remaining examples of the great American cafeteria.

By David Landsel
November 22, 2019
David Landsel

The best Thanksgiving dinner I ever ate was last year in Houston, shared with thousands of people I'd never met before, all of us gathered together on one of those beautiful afternoons that Houston enjoys during months like November. It's one of the only times of year where standing outside in a long line, in a parking lot, is something you might actually survive.

We came as strangers, united in our appreciation of one of the city’s great dining institutions, the Cleburne Cafeteria, a family-owned establishment that has been feeding Houstonians from all walks of life for generations. Some of us were here for the nostalgia, too, because they just don’t make cafeterias like this anymore, others because it was easier than cooking our own turkeys. And really, why compete—the turkey here is just that good.

The Cleburne is an easy place to love; even if you are not a fan of standing in line for your dinner, you will easily admire the restaurant’s fighting spirit—this is a place that has endured a great deal in the nearly eighty years it has been a part of Houston’s story, and always seems to come back stronger. Today, the city’s oldest cafeteria is better than ever, serving up quality home cooking at reasonable prices to anybody and everybody wise enough to understand just how lucky we are that this place still exists. There are other restaurants that will present a greater challenge to your palate, but there are few that sum up Houston quite so neatly—an unpretentious coming together of peoples from all over the world, sharing a love of honest cooking of any kind. Why aren’t there more restaurants like this?

Well, there were. Less than a century ago, cafeterias were as popular with Americans as their fast-casual descendants are today. There were certainly predecessors, but the concept is said to have entered the popular imagination—along with so much else—at the ground-breaking 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where entrepreneur John Kruger operated a restaurant inspired by the smörgåsbords of Sweden. Cribbing its name from the Spanish language, the cafeteria was off to the races, and the concept began to spread far and wide. These relatively laid-back venues were touted as egalitarian, come one, come all establishments—depending in too many places, of course, on the color of your skin.

Courtesy of Adam Alexander Photography

As ever, times changed; sit-down restaurants became more casual, while upscale casual chains promising affordable, exciting food, began to proliferate. The cafeteria began to fade from view; one by one, they started to disappear. Today, there are states, even entire regions of the country, where cafeterias are found only inside schools, or hospitals, or—if they’re lucky—an IKEA store.

Then, there are the parts of the country where the cafeteria never really gave up. Sure, there might be a better way, but tell that to the people that just can’t quit going, or to their operators who seem doggedly determined to keep the genre alive, if only for one more generation. Just like any other restaurant, there’s nothing easy about running a cafeteria; so many have stumbled, and then disappeared—more than one classic operation has bet the farm on modernization, only to discover that it’s not enough: you’ve also got to be good. Fans of the genre received a harsh reminder of this fact recently, when one of the last iconic cafeterias on the West Coast, Clifton’s, re-opened to great fanfare, only to fail again a few years later. By the time the last Jell-O square was discarded off the line in 2018, barely anyone noticed—even diehard fans from childhood had stopped going long before, frustrated by sub-par food and nonsensical pricing.

Courtesy of Tommy's Joynt

Each year, more cafeterias disappear, or begin their slide towards the inevitable, but for every bit of bad news, magic somehow continues to break out. For every city left with nothing but memories, there are places, like North Carolina, Texas, and even future-minded Northern California, where the cafeteria is not only surviving, but also thriving.

Down, sure, but not yet completely out—here are the ten best remaining examples of the great American cafeteria, the keepers of the flame, plus a couple dozen runners-up that everyone should know about. At this reflective time of year, take a minute to give thanks that they’re still here.

THE TOP 10

1. Cleburne Cafeteria, Houston

Greek immigrant Nick Mickelis hadn’t been in the United States more than a few years when he bought the modest cafeteria at the corner of Cleburne and Fannin, back in 1952, and what he really wanted to do was turn the place into a barbecue joint. The regulars, it is said, revolted, and today, in spite of incredible odds (a major move and two devastating fires, just to hit the highlights), this casual cafeteria is not only one of Houston’s most memorable restaurants, it also boasts an incredibly loyal fan base.

The family estimates that roughly 70 percent of their clientele are regulars, some of them treating the place like their dining room, coming in for both lunch and dinner; make a couple of visits yourself, and you’ll see why. The food, which is very good, all-natural, often organic, always fresh tasting, and served in generous portions, is only the beginning of the Cleburne experience; the nicely-appointed dining room will, at most times, already be largely occupied by a group as diverse as the city of Houston itself. From business casual to just rolled out of bed, fine jewelry to muscle tees, this is a place where everyone, very clearly, feels very much at home, and if you don’t yourself, just wait until one of the roving band of attendants comes over to introduce themselves. Typically pushing carts filled with everything you might need, from extra forks to hot coffee, they’re here to make your experience more perfect than it already is, as if that were possible. Click here for a complete introduction to the Cleburne experience.

2. Sokolowski’s University Inn, Cleveland

For nearly a century now, the Sokolowski family has been feeding Ohio’s second largest city all the chicken paprikash, pierogies, and kielbasa it can possibly eat, which apparently is a lot—three generations in, and one of the most loved restaurants in the Midwest shows no sign of slowing down. Boasting a great location on the south side of the Cuyahoga River, looking back towards the downtown skyline, in some cities this might be an upscale steakhouse, a place to celebrate a major real estate deal, or perhaps an engagement. In Cleveland, it’s a modest tavern where people line up, as long as they have to, for their trip down the cafeteria line, eyes often always bigger than their stomachs. (Portions are considerable.) Any time is a good time, but if you come Friday nights, there’s not only a guy behind the piano, there’s the weekly fish fry as well, that long-standing Great Lakes Catholic tradition. (Here it’s beer-battered perch, freshly liberated from Lake Erie.) There are all sorts of ways one might be gently introduced to Rust Belt culture; a trip to Sokolowski’s is the full immersion, more like a face plant, a face plant in a lake effect snowdrift. You may never wish to come up for air. Click here for Michael Symon’s guide to his favorite Cleveland restaurants.  

3. Philippe’s, Los Angeles

And then there was one. Today, the cafeteria mostly seems to be thriving in places very far way from downtown Los Angeles, but the old timers know—back in the beginning, few places in the country took to the concept quite so eagerly as Southern California, which at one time had so many fine examples of the genre that some jokingly referred to the state as Sunny Cafeteria. Los Angeles may still hold dear the same values that allowed cafeterias to proliferate, beginning with convenience and freshness—still, as ever, the region remains locked in pursuit of the new and the next, leaving, for the most part, its long and storied cafeteria culture to the history books. Nobody told Philippe’s, with its sawdust covered floors, factory floor lighting, and long communal tables—here, few concessions have been made to the modern era, and generations of working stiff Angelenos wouldn’t have it any other way. You come to Philippe’s for the atmosphere, but you also come to eat—original owner Philippe Mathieu invented the French dip sandwich, a simple thing of crusty fresh bread and sliced meat made great with the addition of dark, salty jus (and later, the sinus-clearing house mustard, to taste).

The system is slightly different than you will find at most cafeterias—you elbow your way up to the counter, ever so politely, where a typically gracious and patient host, carrying the sort of knowing, resigned demeanor that comes with having worked the same job for a very long time indeed, will handle your entire order, from sandwiches to sides (hard-boiled eggs pickled in beet juice, for sure) and desserts. You will eat better meals in Los Angeles, but the memory of your visit to Philippe’s will not soon fade. Breakfast at Philippe's is a Los Angeles essential—read more here.

4. Gray Brothers Cafeteria Mooresville, IN

Even for sprawling Indianapolis, Mooresville is kind of out there in the cornfields, but a distant location hasn’t done much to stop the small town-gone-suburb from doubling in size since the 1990s. Could it be the Midwest’s grandest, and one of its most enduring temples to tray-based gastronomy, luring in the homebuyers? We’d certainly like to think so. From multiple stone fireplaces to piled-high fruit pies, everything about this place is wildly over the top, and for the first timer, the whole thing can be a bit overwhelming. Plop down into a rocking chair, and consider your options, or we can make this easy—deviled eggs to start, then juicy, usually perfectly-fried chicken, alongside the house macaroni and cheese, and one of the vegetables du jour, or one of those elaborate cold salads most of us have only seen in vintage cookbooks. And pie. You’ll have lots of pie. (Some locals will say it’s the best reason to come here—it’s certainly up there.) Tip: On Wednesday’s, you get a free slice with your meal. [Gray Brothers Cafeteria]

5. Harry’s Hofbrau, San Leandro and Redwood City, CA

Every day is Thanksgiving Day at the king of what’s left of Northern California’s long-running hofbrau scene, one of the region’s less widely-appreciated traditions—if you're thinking of a relentlessly meat-focused cafeteria, plus a bar with dozens of beers on tap, dark, wood-heavy decor, and a vibe that faintly suggests that it’s always Oktoberfest, you’re pretty much there. (How did you know?) This is Bay Area food at its most local, beloved by those who grew up with it, and anyone who likes on-demand turkey dinners—Harry’s claims to sell a million pounds of the stuff every year, and that’s only one of the roast meats on offer each day. From a la king to stroganoff to enchiladas to chili, you can have your turkey all the different ways, depending on the day, though it’s always a good time for a few fat slabs of oven roasted breast, served with heaps of mashed potatoes and gravy, and a few vegetables for decoration. At a moment in Bay Area history where it feels like the only constant is change, Harry’s continued presence, even after recently losing a San Jose location to redevelopment, feels like a minor miracle. [Harry’s Hofbrau]

6. Mehlman Cafeteria, St. Clairsville, OH

Generations ago, the Mehlman family was known rather well, around Wheeling, West Virginia, for their stall at the city’s public market, where you could buy fresh produce and meats from the family farm, alongside prepared meals and desserts. A good reputation is hard to put down, and when Mary Mehlman Dietrich decided much later to buy an old motel with a small coffee shop out on on Route 40, about ten minutes from downtown Wheeling, fans of the family’s cooking followed her over the Ohio River. Mehlman’s, now operated by the fourth generation of the family, may not look like much from the outside, but drive past looking for something flashier, and you risk missing out on one of the purest living examples of classic cafeteria culture left in the entire country, and we can start with the outré decor (you definitely don’t walk into a place like this expecting chandeliers), continuing on to the modest prices, and the abundance of food on offer each day. From baked ham to meatloaf to prime rib, it’s all yours, any time you want it, though it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled for beautiful throwbacks like tuna noodle casserole (Fridays, $3.75 for a large portion) and chop suey Tuesdays. Every day is pie day, thankfully—they’ll sell you a whole one to go for just a little more than $11. Take them up on their offer. [Mehlman Cafeteria]

7. Valois, Chicago

Now all but surrounded by the sparkling modern version of Hyde Park, with its luxury apartments, Whole Foods, and new wave cocktail dens, this nearly century-old South Side institution still flies the flag, unrepentantly, for the way things used to be. Famous for their classic, matter-of-fact slogan—SEE YOUR FOOD—and famously one of President Obama’s favorite places to eat in the old neighborhood, Valois (say VAH-loys) is ye olde Chicago restaurant utilitarian, all vague lighting and formica, with some half-hearted trompe l’oeil to kind of lift the mood, but it’s fine, it’s completely fine, because the dining room itself, typically filled with one of the more socioeconomically diverse crowds you will find in a Chicago restaurant, isn’t the point. You’re here for what’s along the back wall, a fine specimen of a cafeteria line, supplemented, and very much at breakfast, by one of the fastest-moving grills in town. There are a whole lot of people here for generous portions of steak and eggs, said to be one of the President’s favorites. For a guide to Chicago’s best classic restaurants, click here.   

8. Arnold’s Country Kitchen, Nashville

Like the hofbrau in Northern California, there exists an entire portion of the South where what some might call a cafeteria is known primarily as a “meat ’n three.” Named for its core offering—your choice of meat, plus three sides, loosely described as vegetables, there are plenty of cities still thoroughly committed to supporting this worthy regional interpretation of the genre. Few examples are more iconic than the Arnold family’s workhorse of a lunch room near downtown Nashville, where people start lining up before the 10:30 opening (M-F only), so as not to miss out on some of the highest-quality cooking ever to grace a cafeteria line. Local produce, well-sourced meats—Arnold’s doesn’t take the easy route, and it shows; everyone who can rub two nickels together comes to Arnold’s, and while the offerings change daily, there’s always roast beef, because the city would probably revolt if there weren’t. [Arnold’s Country Kitchen]

9. Niki’s West, Birmingham

You won’t go far in Alabama’s largest city, and thank goodness, without coming across an old timer of a restaurant that was, most probably, once owned or is still owned by the family of the Greek immigrants that opened the place decades ago, and sometimes longer than that. This no-frills, no nonsense (when was the last time you saw a sign declaring NO PYJAMAS, NO ROLLERS IN HAIR at a restaurant, we ask you), relentlessly classic cafeteria, meat ’n three, steak joint and breakfast staple all rolled into one has been serving its patch of the Magic City since the late 1950s, laying on catfish, veal cutlets, and liver like it was, well, the late 1950s. Stick around for pie; make ours lemon icebox. [Niki’s West]

10. Cafe Latte, Saint Paul

When Peter and Linda Quinn opened up shop on Grand Avenue in Minnesota’s capital city back in 1984, their bakery and cafe felt like something from the future, boasting one of the state’s first espresso machines, no smoking, and fresh, high-quality food in a casual environment. There wasn’t anything like Cafe Latte in the Twin Cities at the time, and there still isn’t—expanded multiple times since, one of Saint Paul’s favorite gathering places remains, at its core, a furiously good bakery, but the cakes (a series of lush tres leches offerings being the most popular these days, even overtaking Linda’s legendary turtle cake) are only one, very important piece of the puzzle. The daily selection of soups, salads and sandwiches on the line are some of the best around, with the nicely-nuanced, housemade chicken chili way out ahead of the pack. Get everything on it—finely chopped green onions, a sprinkling of cheddar cheese, and a nice thwack of thick sour cream. Read Food & Wine’s guide to the perfect day of eating and drinking your way through St. Paul.

THE BEST OF THE REST (in alphabetical order)

Franke’s, Arkansas

The longtime Little Rock legend, at it since 1919, has been through significant changes lately, most recently saying goodbye to their downtown flagship—Franke’s now operates only out in the suburbs, as well as in Conway. Stick to the one closest to the original, where the house eggplant casserole—topped with lots of cheese—and custard pie belong on every tray.

Highland Park Cafeteria, Dallas

After nearly a century of serving chicken—chicken fried steak, chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, you name it—to Dallasites with big appetites, what was once referred to as “America’s Cafeteria” has downsized greatly, to just the one location, but the legend (thankfully) lives on.

K&W Cafeterias,The Carolinas

North Carolina remains one of the few places in the country where the cafeteria is a place you go on the regular, rather than a curiosity worth a pilgrimage, and while this vintage, family-owned entry, with its souffled yams, tomato aspic salads, and carrot ambrosia is most definitely a chain, many of its two dozen locations go back generations.  

Kramarczuk Sausage Company, Minneapolis

Part butcher, part beer hall, part Midwestern cafeteria, even the most brutal Twin Cities winter day is no match for the festive energy inside this absolutely legendary spot just a bridge away from downtown Minneapolis. Try as many sausages as you possibly can, but start with the classic kielbasa.

Luby’s, Texas

Driving around the Lone Star State, you can’t help but feel as if reports of the cafeteria’s death have been greatly exaggerated—Luby’s seems to be everywhere, mostly because it is—dozens of these cavernous mess halls continue to dot the landscape. One of the house specialties—the square fish, translated as neatly-portioned filets of fried, wild-caught cod—is popular enough that it’s now sold (along with the other house classic, macaroni and cheese) at H-E-B, the state’s best-loved grocery store.

Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen, Chicago

Known best perhaps as one of America’s best Jewish delis, this Chicago classic has long been a blue collar lunch room at heart, serving up ox tail stew and stuffed bell peppers alongside bowls of matzo ball, and piled high corned beef sandwiches. A recent renovation has only enhanced the experience. Read about America’s Best Jewish Delis here.

Matthews Cafeteria, Tucker, GA

Open since the 1950s, this isn’t the only great vintage cafeteria trapped in the body of a small town cafe, but this one—just outside of Atlanta’s perimeter—happens to be more famous than most, and for good reason; the proprietors like to say that the recipes haven’t changed in fifty years, and if you go, whether it’s for a big helping of Brunswick stew, or the pot roast, or the fried catfish with a side of turnip greens, chances are you’ll overhear at least one long-time patron exclaiming exactly the same thing.

MCL Restaurant & Bakery, The Midwest

Of the major surviving regional cafeteria chains, this Indianapolis-based (and still family-owned) treasure might not be the most famous, or most mythologized, but the food is consistently some of the finest. There are just over a dozen locations today, mostly in Indiana, typically modest in appearance, but the difference in the food—particularly the expert-level fried chicken, and the slow-roast beef—is immediately apparent, once you dive in. The slow-cooked Wisconsin beans (yes, there’s bacon in there) taste like the sort of thing a Midwestern housewife would bring to a Southern turnip green cook-off. Click here to read about the most interesting neighborhood in Indianapolis.

Mitsitam Native Foods, Washington, DC

One of the finest (and most casual) Thanksgiving dinners in our nation’s capital is served at the memorable cafeteria located inside the National Museum of the American Indian, but any day is a good time to come feast on well-executed dishes representing tribal homelands from across North America.

Piccadilly, The South

Can you build a legend around carrots? If we’re talking the wildly popular carrot souffle at this Baton Rouge-based chain, in business since the world wars, the answer is decidedly yes. Time has not always been kind to what was long considered a trend-setter in the cafeteria world, but these days, the waters appear to have calmed, and nearly forty locations—eight of them in the Atlanta area—remain in business. 

Sam’s Hof BrauSacramento

Sam Gordon once presided over an entire hofbrau empire; today, his great-grandson Mickey Schlesinger operates the Watt Avenue flagship, tweaking the format ever so gently, leaving the recipes—many as old as the restaurant, celebrating its sixtieth year in business—well enough alone. The roast beef is outstanding. Headed to Sacramento? Read this guide to the perfect Sunday morning in California’s state capital.

Tamarack, Beckley, WV

This very large (and very worth your time) cultural center, plonked by the side of Interstate I-64, is just one of West Virginia’s many unexpected finds. At the heart of it all is a very good cafeteria, serving up some of the best food you’ll ever eat at a highway rest area—the pan-fried local rainbow trout is almost worth a road trip. Click here to read about another best-kept West Virginia secret.

Tommy’s Joynt, San Francisco

Smack in the middle of a city now almost slavishly devoted to what’s next, the wild, almost-unsettling vintage kitsch of its last great hofbrau is a dollop of mud in the eye of everyone who says the old San Francisco is dead. On your first visit, get the buffalo stew—it’s kind of a thing around here (to say the least). Click here to learn more about Northern California’s classic hofbrau culture.

Vienna Beef Factory Store & Cafe, Chicago

You’ll need a key card or an invite to get into some of the country’s best cafeterias these days, typically hiding out on the trendier corporate campuses; no clearances required here, however. Textbook-perfect Chicago-style dogs are, as you can imagine, a focal point at the no-nonsense canteen for employees of the city’s iconic dog producer, but that’s just for starters.

Wright’s Cafeteria, Knoxville

This firm local favorite started out back in the 1940s as a modest meat ’n three, located inside a Knoxville grocery store. Over time, the food proved popular enough that the Wright family, still in charge, closed the grocery store and expanded the restaurant. Click here to read Food & Wine’s guide to where to eat in Knoxville.

Yoder’s Deitsch Haus, Montezuma, GA

Mennonites have been farming in central Georgia for generations, and this authentic rural find draws travelers in the know from nearby I-75 for the sort of classic, homestyle cooking you typically expect to find on groaning buffets in places like Pennsylvania or Ohio. Read more about Amish and Mennonite culinary traditions here.

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