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The decline of Lazy Susan restaurants

By By Robert St. John / food columnist
Feb. 19, 2003
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of New South Restaurant Group, www.nsrg.com. His weekly food column appears in various newspapers throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. If you have any questions or comments he can be reached at robert@nsrg.com or (601) 264-0672.   
Are we witnessing the death of real food?
Maybe so, maybe not. We might, however, be witnessing the regrettable decline of one of the South's most beloved restaurant concepts, Lazy Susan restaurants.
The first Lazy Susan restaurant in Mississippi, possibly one of the first in the country, was the Mendenhall Hotel Revolving Tables. It opened in 1915. Sadly, it closed in 2001.
Lazy Susan restaurants were usually located near railroad tracks or in boarding houses. The legend states that Lazy Susan tables were used to keep ill-mannered boarding house guests and Yankee train passengers from reaching across the table.
I recently enjoyed a memorable lunch at the Dinner Bell in McComb. Eating at the Dinner Bell is like having lunch at your grandmother's house, complete with window-unit air conditioner and bowls full of home-cooked vegetables.
Sitting with others in a communal setting and sharing a meal is some of the best of what the Deep South has to offer.
The original Dinner Bell opened in a building across the street from the current location in 1959.
There have been four owners over the years. The current owners, John and Carolyn Lopinto, have been spinning the tables since 1979.
The Dinner Bell seats 64 guests at four revolving tables. The tables, which were custom made in New Orleans, seat anywhere from 14 to 18 people. The outside (bottom) tier of the Lazy Susan remains stationary while the top tier is spun at a manageable (make that edible) pace.   
The Dinner Bell operates with three waitresses, three cooks and a dishwasher. Coming from my restaurant, where we have 152 on the payroll, that seems unbelievable.
Most of the staff have worked at the Dinner Bell for more than 20 years. Anytime you visit a restaurant where the average employee tenure is more than 15 years, you will almost always have a wonderful dining experience. Such is the case at the Dinner Bell.
The owners sit down with their co-workers and eat a meal before every lunch shift. I would be worthless if I worked at the Dinner Bell. I would inevitably stuff myself before the lunch shift and not be able to work a lick. Lunch at the Dinner Bell rates an 81/2 out of 10 on the St. John Nap Scale.
At the Dinner Bell you will meet folks who regularly drive 80 miles from Baton Rouge to eat lunch like their grandmothers used to make it. I was seated with two groups from Natchez and a family from Baton Rouge.
I ate fried chicken, pork chops in gravy, chicken and dumplings, butter beans, sweet-potato casserole, field peas, cornbread, peach cobbler and the house specialty fried eggplant.
As a matter of fact, I ate four helpings of fried eggplant. All was washed down with the house wine of the South, sweet tea.
The fried eggplant is great. At the Purple Parrot Caf and the Crescent City Grill, we serve a lot of fried eggplant. Ours is crispier and has a Creole flavor-profile.
The Dinner Bell's eggplant has a buttery quality. I prefer theirs, but they aren't giving up the recipe.
Jerry Clower was a regular table spinner at the Dinner Bell. Before he sat down, he would demand everyone in the restaurant's attention, make them stop eating and say grace.
John Lopinto said they were some of the most gracious prayers he ever heard. Clower knew. Great food deserves a fitting blessing. Just like home.
People don't take on boarders like they used to. Today's kids want Taco Bell and pizza. Lazy Susan restaurants are in danger of becoming a dying breed.
But since Sept., 11, 2001, the trend is that more families are eating at home. McDonald's, for the first time in the history of the company, lost money.
Maybe that means kids are eating more home cooking, which might mean kids are eating more vegetables, which might mean families will start wanting more "real food" when they dine out, which means there will be more restaurants opening like the Dinner Bell, which means Robert will eat out even more often than he does now.
Many Old South traditions, customs and ways of life have gone by the wayside. In some cases that is a good thing; in others we lament the loss. When it comes to eating native cuisine with family and friends, let's hope we never have a reason to grieve.
Crescent City Grill
Fried Eggplant
12 eggplant rounds
1 cup seasoned flour (1 cup flour, 1 tablespoon creole seasoning)
11/2 cup egg wash (1 egg,1/3 cup milk)
11/2 cup seasoned bread crumbs
Peanut oil for deep-frying
Peel eggplant and cut into round discs, about the circumference of a mayonnaise jar top and 1/4-inchn1/2 inch thick. Marinate eggplant in salted-lemon ice water until ready to cook.
To fry eggplant rounds: Dust them with seasoned flour, shake off excess flour, dip them in the egg wash, and then coat with breadcrumbs. Fry a few at a time at 350 degrees until medium brown and crispy. Do not overload the oil. Drain on paper towels.