Bell Brothers Cafeteria an original

by Brian Clarey

It’s my first time in the Bell Brothers Cafeteria – my first foray, truth be told, into this section of Winston-Salem, an industrial corridor where the Norfolk-Southern Line butts up against the airport.

A neighborhood breaks the pattern of manufacturing plants and tarmac somewhere near NC Highway 52.

There are barbershops with painted windows, and a moderately well-kept housing project. A Paragon Food Center and its parking lot have been abandoned to the stalk weeds and crabgrass. Its façade wears flourishes of black spray paint, evidence of life after dark.

Bell Brothers has been here since 1953 – so long that the meat-and-two-veggie dynamic may have been formulated inside these walls.

Regular readers of this space may recognize that this is the second cafeteria I’ve visited in as many weeks. I acknowledge this and offer by way of explanation that Bell Brothers is the most unspoiled example of the classic cafeteria in the Triad, perhaps in the whole country.

Even as the neighborhood around it tells its own story of the last 50 years, little has changed inside. The food line still starts with tiers of desserts – homemade pies and Jell-O, mostly – and a section with cold salads. There will be a predictable line-up of home-cooked staples classified loosely into “meat” and “vegetable” categories (for example, macaroni and cheese is a vegetable). You point at what you want through the glass and the nice ladies will serve it up for you on a segmented plate.

They still keep the silverware and drinking glasses in industrial dishwasher racks, and they still have coffee and iced tea in the dining room – iced tea stored in vats big enough to wash a monkey in.

Today’s menu includes sausage, chicken-fried steak, chicken-fried chicken, baked chicken, turkey with dressing, green beans, cornbread and pecan pie.

I settle on a hamburger steak – a dense, seasoned hunk of beef in a gravy redolent of ketchup with thick onion slices – with cabbage and broccoli with a thin cheese sauce. Then I point to that pork chop.

She gets me a good one, well marbled, prepared in the manner that was the inspiration for Shake “n’ Bake kitchen mixes and with surprising pockets of meat around the bone. And is Bell Brothers the kind of place where I feel comfortable picking up my pork chop bone and gnawing on it?

Yes, it is.

The crowd is a fine cross-section of those who look for value and volume in their midday meals: young professionals trying not to get gravy on their shirts, laborers in sturdy boots, old folks who dress for lunch out of habit. There are also a few representatives of the leisure class – at least, as they are represented in this stretch of street.

The dining room is a time capsule, with red Naugahyde and Formica and the kind of wood paneling that is actually made from pieces of wood. The food is honest and real – rudimentary elements combined in time-honored tradition, nothing you haven’t seen before but still with the ability to surprise. Like when the sauce from my broccoli mingled on the plate with the gravy from the hamburger steak. Or when I cut through a slice of Key lime pie and realized that it was constructed entirely in-house, right down to the crust.

And while it may be surprising to some that Bell Brothers has found long-term success in a neighborhood where that commodity is hard to come by, it all makes perfect sense to me. Currents shift. Tides ebb and flow. Fortunes rise and fall. But a good piece of baked chicken is impervious to the forces of change.

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