Driving northwest on West Atkinson Avenue, no one would blame you if you drove right by Mr. Perkins’ Family Restaurant thinking it was long-closed and abandoned. The sign is sun bleached and barely visible, the daily special board is empty and the windows appear shuttered. But don’t let the outwardly appearance fool you. Inside, Mr. […]
Driving northwest on West Atkinson Avenue, no one would blame you if you drove right by Mr. Perkins’ Family Restaurant thinking it was long-closed and abandoned. The sign is sun bleached and barely visible, the daily special board is empty and the windows appear shuttered. But don’t let the outwardly appearance fool you. Inside, Mr. Perkins is bustling with life and soul.
The first time I wandered into Mr. Perkins’ – having long heard it praised by people I trust (my dad, mainly, who they allegedly know by name) – I never in my life felt so out of place and so welcome at the same time. As my wife and I, the only two white people in the small, packed diner, ate our meals, people – not people who worked there but fellow diners – kept approaching our table to ask us what we had ordered and how we were enjoying everything. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was clear that those who frequent Mr. Perkins take great pride in their little neighborhood institution, and they want to make sure newbies (which my wife and I apparently stuck out as) are left with a good impression. I might have felt like some sort of circus sideshow were they not so friendly and sincere.
Before we get to the food, a little history. Mr. Perkins is Willie Perkins Sr. who along with his wife, “Grandma” Hilda Perkins, opened up this soul food oasis back in 1969. The couple retired in 1999 and handed the reins to Willie Perkins Jr. who ran the place until early 2010 when, at just 57 years old, a brain tumor took his life. In the subsequent years, Willie Sr. and “Grandma” have returned to the restaurant, helping keep it afloat in the wake of Willie Jr.’s death. And thank God for that.
The food at Mr. Perkins is traditional soul food, the type of food your mother made if you were so rightly blessed. The fried catfish, which our waitress said was her favorite dish, more than lived up to the hype. The cornmeal crust was wonderfully crisp and peppery while the enormous filets that lay within were flakey and fresh. I have no doubt the tender pork chops would have been similarly crispy were they not bathed – “smothered,” as they call it – in rich brown gravy. You can order them plain if you prefer; there really is no wrong way to go. Although the catfish at $12.95 and the pork chops at $9.75 might not scream cheap, just know the portions are plenty for two meals.
Choosing just two sides is like some bizarro culinary Sophie’s choice (instead of being forced to choose between two bad options, you’re forced to pick from as many as 16 awesome ones). We ultimately decided on collard greens (an obvious choice), yams (another waitress suggestion), mac and cheese (gotta have that) and fried green tomatoes (the special of the day). I never had eaten fried green tomatoes before (though I did see the movie in theaters when I was 9) and rather enjoyed their pleasantly bright burst of flavor. Like so many other things in this world, they took very well to a dab of hot sauce.
Sadly, the meal wasn’t without its lowlights. Well, one lowlight in particular. As much as it pains me to say it, I did not care for Mr. Perkins’ cornbread. Served as pancakes – and I’m trying to tread lightly here because I imagine criticizing a man’s cornbread might be a capital offense in some parts – I found them to be dry and a tad on the bland side. If you dipped them in the gravy they were delicious, but, then again, what wouldn’t be? Let’s just move on.
I wrote about the butter roll – slices of buttery pie crust baked in a sugar and butter syrup – in our June City Guide issue (“Foodsville, USA”) and fully intended to give it another go. Unfortunately, by the time we sat down a little after 1 p.m., they had already sold out for the day. (“If you can believe it,” our waitress said. Oh, I can believe it.) Instead, I opted for the lemon cheese pie ($2.50). I’m not entirely sure what a “cheese pie” is but it fell somewhere between a standard custard pie and a cheesecake, which would seem to make sense. It was sweet and tart and topped with rich, extra-thick whipped cream – pretty much as decadent and delicious as it sounds.
As we left – stuffed and lugging doggy bags of leftovers – we were showered with shouts of “Enjoy your day!” and “Be sure to come back!” from the entire staff. You better believe we’ll be back. The hospitality at Mr. Perkins’ is really something to behold.