America’s obsession with southern foodways has spread the meat and three far from its humble roots. These restaurants find inspiration in the kind of food grandma used to make.
But what exactly is a meat and three, and why is it still important in today’s fast-paced world?
Today, we’re looking at the history of these restaurants and exploring where they stand now.
Let’s dig in!
What Is a Meat and Three?
Simply put, a meat and three restaurant serves, well, meat and sides. The number three refers to the tradition of one starch and two veggies. Most establishments don’t limit the number of sides you can take, though. So it might be meat and four or five if you’re starving.
These eateries serve several types of meat during the day. Fried or roasted chicken, sometimes both, pork chops, meatloaf, and ham are the usual suspects. You might also find roast beef or ribs, depending on the chef.
The “three” refers to the sides, traditionally veggies. And before you say anything, yes, macaroni and cheese is a vegetable. Other sides include lima beans, green beans, collard greens, corn, mashed potatoes, and sweet potatoes.
There’s usually some kind of bread, cornbread or rolls, and a dessert. Pie is typical, but you’ll also find cobblers or buckles if you’re in the right place.
Almost everyone orders sweet tea with their meat and three, and you’ll need it to cut the rich, fatty foods.
The History Behind Meat and Three
In an interview with Eater, Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge discusses the history of the meat and three. He says that during the early 20th century, a significant shift happened in southern culture.
Instead of folks living out their lives in the country, they moved into cities for jobs in factories and offices. In the fields, a meat and three-style meal fed folks working hard, physical jobs. But as people moved into the city, they brought their appetites and tastes with them.
Offerings vary depending on the region, but hearty, homestyle cooking stays the same.
Where Did Meat and Three Originate?
There’s some debate about who operated the first meat and three restaurant. What isn’t up for debate is that Nashville, Tennessee, is the birthplace.
Hap Townes was a Nashville institution named for the father and son who ran it. In fact, what started as a hot dog cart in the 1920s grew into a 49-seat restaurant. By the 1940s, they were known for the “plate lunch” served daily. Based on seasonal items, the menu changed frequently.
Shortly after Hap Townes started serving plate lunch, The Busy Bee opened in Atlanta, Georgia. Lucy Jackson opened The Busy Bee to serve home-cooked food. The story goes that a missionary passing through couldn’t afford a meal at a fancy place down the road.
Instead of just turning them away, the owner referred them to Momma Lucy. After a fantastic meal, the missionary blessed The Busy Bee, and the rest is history.
Wherever the meat and three started, it’s become a southern staple. Table service or cafeteria style, the secret ingredients are love and soul.
Why Travel to Nashville for Meat and Three?
Nashville, known as Music City, is the perfect place to discover the meat and three. The city is full of country music, history, and cultural landmarks, and the food can’t be beat. Nashville, the capital of Tennessee, straddles the Cumberland River and is chock full of natural beauty.
Since 1925, the Grand Ole Opry has showcased the best that country music has to offer. They still have weekly performances featuring established and new acts. The Station Inn and The Bluebird Cafe are world-renowned venues you must visit.
You can also check out the Music City landmarks, starting with the Country Music Hall of Fame. From there, walk up the street to the Parthenon, a full-scale replica of the Greek landmark. Walking around town, you’ll notice how art infuses nearly everything.
And, of course, the food is a major draw on its own. Let’s take a look!
Pro Tip: Chow down at these Best BBQ in Nashville for Your Next RV Road Trip.
Best Places to Eat Meat and Three in Nashville
Hap Townes pioneered the meat and three in Nashville in the early 1940s, but they closed in 1985. Below are a few of our favorite spots that carry on that tradition today.
Silver Sands Cafe
The current owner, Sophia Vaughn, is the second generation in her family to operate the Silver Sands Cafe in Nashville. Opened by her aunt in the 1970s, the restaurant features recipes passed down for decades.
Homestyle favorites are on the line daily at the Silver Sands Cafe. Smothered pork chops, salmon croquettes, fried chicken, and catfish frequently fulfill the meat requirement. The plate includes cabbage, apples, coleslaw, green beans, and mac and cheese.
Stop in Tuesday through Friday for breakfast or lunch. They host a busy lunch crowd on Sundays, so get there early.
For over seventy years, Wendell Smith’s has served meat and three to hungry Nashvillians. Born in 1912 in Alabama, Wendell Lee Smith opened the doors of his restaurant in the early 1950s. Since then, the second and third generations have taken the reins, and they brag that the fourth is running the dish machine as we speak.
One of the most visited meat and three restaurants, they see five hundred customers daily. Rooted in the blue-collar neighborhood it opened in, Wendell Smith’s is an institution.
Customers love the rotating menu. You’ll find roast beef, baked ham, and barbecue on the line. Every day they have specialty items in the meat category that offer something for every taste. The sides are a mix of classics such as sliced tomatoes, creamed potatoes, fried corn, and a gelatin fruit salad. Sides rotate, too! Check out the menu, so you don’t miss your favorite!
They’re closed on Sundays, but you can get breakfast, lunch, or dinner there any other day of the week.
Swett’s is an African-American-owned family business, a tradition over sixty years in the making. Opened in the heart of Nashville, the Swett family restaurant caters to everyone. Students, celebrities, and locals flock to the cafeteria-style dining room for meat and three classics.
Daily items like beef tips, BBQ chicken, meatloaf, pork chops, and country-fried steak ensure folks are lining up outside. They also offer a variety of smoked meats. Veggie offerings include more favorites, such as turnip greens, fried apples, pinto beans, and okra. You’ll find other items on the menu as well. Macaroni and cheese and candied yams are our favorites.
Their menu also includes a range of desserts and bread items. Pies, cakes, and cobblers round out a menu deeper than the Cumberland River.
Swett’s serves lunch and dinner seven days a week.
Pro Tip: After grabbing some grub in Nashville, spend the night at one of these 7 Best RV Parks in Nashville, Tennessee.
Meat and Threes are the Ultimate Southern Cuisine
It doesn’t take a genius to enjoy home-cooked food. But turning grandma’s recipes into a full-time, highly successful restaurant does. The perfect combination of comfort food, hospitality, and tradition means that meat and three diners aren’t going anywhere. And beyond the staples, some spots are pushing into new territory.
Finally, life on the road doesn’t mean you have to give up on feeling at home. Meat and threes ensure that home is just a step inside wherever you are.
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