Chattanooga has its share of foodie havens – restaurants with inventive cuisine crafted by award-winning chefs who use locally grown ingredients and charge more for an appetizer than my dad spent on the whole family at the Ponderosa when I was a kid.
(If you remember Ponderosa restaurants, give yourself one cool point.)
But what about locally grown mom-’n’-pops that do simple food really well? Chattanooga has more than a few of those, too, though you’ll need to travel beyond the city center to find some of them.
Case in point: the popular Marsha’s Backstreet Cafe, which has been serving hungry Chattanoogans since 1999. Tucked behind a liquor store on Brainerd Road, Marsha’s provides the kind of fare often found on a laminated menu or a folded paper flyer and draws a lunch crowd that rivals either of the Wally’s. Think Mel’s Diner without the grits.
(If you got the 1970s sitcom reference, give yourself another cool point.)
I believe Martha’s is well-liked because the place was nearly full when I stopped in at noon this week and one of the servers was complaining about how slow it was. “I blame it on Halloween,” she said as she handed a plate of hand-breaded chicken tenders and house-cut fries to a discerning patron.
Before returning to the counter, she snatched a menu out of the basket that’s nailed to the wall near the door and handed it to me. Being a first-timer, I was unaware of the local customs and appreciated the help. She also told me she’d give me a minute when she saw my bewilderment as I gazed at the offerings.
Sandwiched between ads for a funeral home, a bail bonding service and that guy who wants to buy everyone’s gold and diamonds were the kinds of items that have probably filled thousands of menus across the U.S.
From lunch plates to “garden fresh” salads to melts, all the usual suspects were present and accounted for. And, judging from what I saw on nearby plates, at least looked comforting and delicious.
Frozen with indecision, I did what I’d heard other customers do: When my server told me about the daily special, I handed her my menu and said, “Sounds good.” (When in Rome, after all.)
As I waited for what seemed like even less time than the first car at the Chick-fil-A drive-thru, I took in the local flavor, which consists of a few dozen signs with comical or reflective expressions.
“Children left unattended will be towed at the parents’ expense,” read one. “Behind every great woman is herself,” declared another. (If you agree, give yourself a third cool point.)
Despite having consumed several servings of food for thought, I was still hungry when my plate arrived, covered with a hamburger patty, buttered toast, new potatoes and broccoli casserole.
I momentarily regretted choosing the lunch special over the chicken fingers, but the feeling faded as I chewed my first bite of perfectly seasoned and grilled hamburger. As I moved on to the side dishes, I became a Marsha’s convert.
It was simple food – the casserole was coated with Ritz crackers – but it was well done. And everything didn’t just look comforting and delicious, it was comforting and delicious.
As I used my fork to spear the last remaining chunk of new potato on my plate, the back of a server’s T-shirt caught my eye. “Best clucking chicken salad in town” it read.
Being something of a chicken salad connoisseur, I had to find out for myself and ordered a pound to take home. “It is really the best in town?” I asked my server.
“We only have the best,” she replied.
“Are you talking about me again?” came a woman’s voice from the kitchen.
I had one more question for the server before ending my meal: “What’s for dessert?” I asked, expecting her to say banana pudding or coconut cream pie.
“We don’t have any desserts,” she said as she darted off.
“No clucking desserts?” I thought. “How is that possible?”
I wanted to register a complaint but didn’t see a suggestion box, so I paid my bill (which amounted to less than what my dad shelled out for the whole family at Ponderosa) and left with a good meal inside me, a folded menu in my hand and three cool points in my pocket.
“That was really good,” I thought as I drove home. “But I’m getting the chicken fingers next time.”
Marsha’s Backstreet Cafe is located at 5036 Brainerd Road and opens for lunch at 11 a.m. Call 423 485-7911 to learn more. View the menu at ourrestaurantmenu.com/marshas.