The restaurant is a separate structure in a small cluster of buildings in Acworth that would kindly be called third world strip mall. Perched on top of the roof is a sign with the name ‘DADDY’S’ in bold black letters against an ugly yellow background. If Freud were alive, he would have a field day with me and the connotations of that name.
The brick sided building is rectangular and mimics the appearance of a 1950’s style house. Large plate glass windows face the nearby road allowing easy visibility to the steaming food on one side and patrons on the other end. I have been eating here on and off for the better part of thirty years. If good customers were made honorary shareholders of this eatery, I’m confident I would be among the first recipients.
A poorly built retaining wall leans out precariously along one side of the parking lot, obviously exhausted from holding back the red clay that pushes from behind. It will soon collapse and then lay in jumbled heaps of defeated concrete block, rusty steel bars, and triumphant clay. These lifeless warriors will lie across that row of parking spaces for months while others sort out who is responsible for removal and reconstruction.
But inside there is no such disarray. On the right, go through the double doors painted barn red, and immediately your attention is focused to the left on the neat row of foods heaped in stainless steel trays, kept hot or cold by unseen mechanisms, and semi-protected by glass sneeze shields. Two sizes of plates and small bowls are stacked expectantly at the beginning of the table. Expediency and gluttony are facilitated by the fact that access to the food is down both sides of the yards-long smorgasbord. Folks who are starting to serve themselves may expect polite returnees from the dining room to break in line. “Scuze me, I’m jes here to git me some chickin; they wuz out when I went through.”
You start with salad (last summer they actually used ‘real’ tomatoes), progress to beets, cole slaw and so forth; you make quick, but agonizing choices from the vegetables cooked “half-to-death” Southern style; you try and create room for the fried chicken or meatloaf or country fried steak swimming in brown gravy by displacing the food on your already mounded plate. Then you realize that it’s hopeless to get dessert on this trip as you juggle two brimming plates and one bowl and will be compelled to come back.
If you are troubled by a guilty conscience upon your return, you can start at the beginning of the line and pretend that this is your first trip through. Don’t fret; no one keeps count. Leave this buffet hungry and it’s your own fault. You will notice that this has, apparently, not proven to be a problem as evidenced by the ample girth of many of the patrons.
Usually, but sometimes not if they’re overwhelmed, one of two or three perfectly plump waitresses in blue jeans will ask in tones as sweet as the tea for your drink preference. “Whaddya all gonna have, honey? Sweet, unsweet, or water?” as you pile up your plates. The staff is stable, predictable, and mostly related. Puffed blond hair, face with lots of eye make-up, they look as good to me as a fine mule would to an appreciative farmer. They know me and I know them and there is a measure of connectedness between us that is both reassuring and soothing. If I’m with someone else, I will order the same drink as my dining partner to make it easier on these goddesses of the buffet. There’s nothing chain restaurant saccharine about these pleasant but harried women. They serve sincere smiles with their efficiency. “Ya’ll enjoy” is dropped on already grazing, bent heads as the bread and drinks are placed on the table. With more of a military about face than a pirouette, it’s off to field other requests as they return to their alcove for more of whatever is desired by the steady influx of customers.
The patrons are mostly blue collar and men and those of us who are ‘wanna be’s’. Neckties and dresses are scarce; rather, overalls hang over ample frames, ballcaps of all genres roost on tan heads, and under the tables leather boots rest at odd angles while taking a break from supporting well-fed bodies.
Although this is not exactly a male bastion, it is best that there aren’t too many female patrons for the simple reason that they tend to delay progress in the food line. That’s because many women will use the metal tongs to pick up each piece of fried chicken, carefully examine it for several seconds, turning it this way and that until every segment would be dizzy if it were alive and flying, and then gently put it back down, almost apologetically, until another piece is retrieved for scrutiny. I’m never certain what it is they are scouting for and their search methods are so haphazard, flitting and flipping through the pile of hapless chicken, that it appears that they don’t know either. Perhaps they are looking for plump breasts. These are probably the same women who actually go shopping all day for God knows what, while the men (just as they are typical buyers) are on more of a search and consume mission. For these males, if it can be plopped on the plate unceremoniously, and sits still long enough, it’ll be eaten.
If one is unfortunate enough to be behind such a careful eater, regardless of gender or age, an unspoken house rule dictates that this be endured and not objected to verbally. However it is quite permissible to simply reverse field and go to the other side of the serving line in order to avoid any jams created by indecision.
Amongst the tables, the talk is loud and boisterous and the language is salted with the twang of “aints”, “shore nuff”, and “I reckon.” Latino and black men mix with the white customers freely as most appear to be work companions. The Latinos relish the food with subdued conversation amongst themselves. As yet, they are still strangers in a foreign culture. The blacks banter easily with all nearby, their own form of joviality refreshing. The cultural blend here is as diverse as the vegetable mixture served towards the end of the week. Food is the universal appeal and it is enjoyed with an amiability that only properly fried chicken can foster. Southern cooking has proven to be one of the arenas in which the races can have a friendly accommodation even though it was not always that way. But here, just like the truces for Christmas that were called during war, hankerin’ for home cooking displaces inequality and meals are enjoyed without seating preferences.
I make it a point to tip generously even though this is a haul-your-own-grub establishment. I want these people and this place to survive as long as possible. Comfort is derived here from more than just the food. In a world of bigger is better, where the food and living is hectic, where old ways of existing are being discarded as fast as clothes by two lovers in a moment of passion, this place is an oasis. I realize that many sophisticates and health nuts would express great disdain for this type of fare, but that makes me happy. Otherwise, the place would be way too crowded. And anyway, I’ll bet that their chances of dying in a car wreck on one of Atlanta’s super crowded roadways are greater than mine of coronary failure.
For me, there are copious amounts of introspection available in this eating place. Most of it is engendered by reminiscence for the better side of my own upbringing. It doesn’t hurt that the atmosphere encourages enjoyment and an interruption to our fast paced lives, sort of like a good snow storm during a mild Southern winter. If the weather’s reasonably decent, men gather in small irregular gaggles outside, picking their teeth, grinning, bullshitting, taunting one another, extending as long as possible the day’s most pleasant interlude. This is not the place for a meal to be confined to a half-hour.
Although there are younger patrons, the demographics are tilted towards us more ‘mature’ folks who sport heads of hair (or no hair) that is indicative of the ageing process. Likely they have the same need for nostalgia and an aversion to certain aspects of the modern world as I do. These kinds of diners are a dying breed, but where they exist, they are peopled by regulars who tend to know each other, who favor amiable conversations with strangers, and who love the verbal favors of an attentive waitress. There’s something about being called ‘honey’ or ‘shugah’, even though those same terms will be slathered over every other male in the establishment, that causes me to feel just a bit more special, seemingly cared for, and, admittedly, just a bit mothered. “Hi, my name is Sabrina, and I’ll be your server tonight” pales in comparison to the use of those aforementioned terms of endearment drizzled over the conversation like chocolate icing on a warm doughnut.
Aside from the food, the sign at the register is indicative of what matters most to this establishment: “All the happiness in the world doesn’t buy money.” Based on the smile that the owner gives to each exiting customer (who must pay in cash), I would say that she seems reasonably content.
A vase of hand picked flowers (when I wrote this it was a daffodil mixture) on the checkout counter displaces the need for a mission statement. The water served here is genuine Cobb County treated. Print advertising would be wasted text for this ‘dining experience.’ There are no apologies mumbled for this fare, nor are there any needed. Word gets around; avoid going at noon if you can help it. If not, go anyway and remember to tip in a big hearted manner!