“Your eyes are bigger than your stomach,” my dad grumbled.
We’d just arrived at our table at Piccadilly Cafeteria, a regular visit to which was the sole bright spot on Sundays otherwise spent bored in church or dreading school the next day. As usual, my 72-pound 11-year-old self had opted for the Super Dilly: an entrée, three sides, bread, a drink and (duh) dessert.
Dad was right. I rarely, if ever, cleaned my plate at Piccadilly. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. And who could expect a food-obsessed adolescent to resist such a diverse bounty of gustatory delights? An inability to choose between broccoli cheese casserole, mashed potatoes and fried okra is a gift, not a curse. Sacrificing any one of them for a few bites of lemon meringue pie, when the menu allows me to order all of it, would simply have been foolish.
Piccadilly has sadly dwindled from a chain spanning the South to a measly six locations across Alabama and Florida. Similar fates have befallen cafeteria cohorts like Luby’s, as fast-food and fast-casual eateries vacuum up larger shares of people’s stomachs. Hipster foodies like me rarely come to the defense of these establishments – there is nothing sexy about food served primarily with ice-cream scoops, by middle-aged folks in hair nets.
Holdouts exist, however. They’re stationed in the culinary deserts of strip malls and suburbs like Obi-Wan Kenobi, waiting for brash young eaters to rediscover their wisdom. Niki’s West in Birmingham, Ala. is one such stalwart. From the fringes of an industrial park in northwest Birmingham, Niki’s has been serving home-cooked Southern food since 1957.
Nominally a “steak and seafood” restaurant, the cafeteria line is the real linchpin of the Niki’s experience. If we eat with our eyes first, traveling down the line with the flow of traffic provides a heaping helping of taste tests. This is menu perusal at its most direct: does it look and/or smell good? Then order that shit. You can just point if you’re not sure what it is.
The variety on the steam table at Niki’s is impressive, even when one considers the high volume of customers. On any given day, there are 10 entrees and up to four dozen sides to be configured in any manner of your choosing. My admittedly-terrible math skills put that at about 2,500 different possible meals, each one unique, without accounting for desserts.
Needless to say I sampled but a fraction of what Niki’s has to offer (if you’d like to fund a more thorough expedition, email for Paypal info). Paneed veal cutlet, encased in crispy breadcrumbs and lacquered with an intense brown gravy. Baked macaroni, unabashedly oozing pasteurized-processed American cheese. The greens may be under-seasoned, but a bowl of pepper-packed, buttery black-eyed peas inspired forgiveness. Adorable corn muffins and the best piece of caramel cake I’ve ever smushed into my face completed a meal that would have made my preteen self extremely proud.
Niki’s West is unlikely to appear on foodie websites’ hot lists, and no one from their kitchen will be invited to appear on Top Chef. But for most of the meals we eat, pedigree is meaningless. Their significance beyond the fullness of our bellies is in fostering and deepening relationships, not in replacing them. When the food happens to be completely delicious and presented in a way that inspires curiosity and comfort in equal measure, magic happens. Memories are made. A gluttonous young man might even become inspired to write about food. Don’t let that last part diminish your enthusiasm.