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What are plate lunches? Why are they so popular in South Louisiana?

What are plate lunches? Why are they so popular in South Louisiana?

Meat and three plate lunch specials are foundational to comfort food in the South. Although common everywhere that “y’all” is the collective pronoun of choice, the tradition is so deeply ingrained in the food culture of Lafayette, Louisiana, that there’s an actual plate lunch trail.

This roadway-meets-foodway beckons hungry pilgrims to travel in search of the likes of smothered chicken, hamburger with gravy, fried catfish and chicken fried steak. Once the meat is chosen, it’s all about the sides, with options like creamed corn, collard greens, green beans and mashed potatoes lacquered with deep mahogany gravy.

Although it would take some hustling to hit all 46 stops on the trail, not to mention an insatiable appetite, these family-owned restaurants are ideal jumping-off points. An easy day trip from New Orleans, diving deep into the meat and threes offers an authentic dose of Southern hospitality that will feed both body and soul.

Laura’s II

At Laura's II, it's all about the gravyAt Laura’s II, it’s all about the gravy — Photo courtesy of LafayetteTravel.com

Laura Williams Broussard’s signature brown gravy has been simmered by three different generations, ladled over meat and threes since 1968. Originally located in her home, down a dead-end residential street in Lafayette, customers came from all over Acadiana to taste Laura’s gravy.

Although different family members took their turn at the stove, her granddaughter Madonna Broussard opened Laura’s II in 2000 at 1904 W. University Avenue, a magnet for students from the nearby college, as well as regulars and workers from the neighborhood.

Open daily from 10:30 am to 2:30 pm, Laura’s II is known for oversized baked stuffed turkey wings, smothered okra and some of the best rice and gravy in the universe.

Ton’s Drive-In

Ton's has been dishing plate lunches since 1968Ton’s has been dishing plate lunches since 1968 — Photo courtesy of LafayetteTravel.com

There are days when Hollie Girouard feels she’s doing sacred work running Ton’s, the Broussard restaurant her grandparents opened back in 1963 as the region’s first drive-in. Girouard, who started in the business at 16, is gradually taking over for her mom as she’s slowed down.

Customers aren’t seeing big changes – dishes like meatball stew, smothered pork, crawfish étouffée and shrimp stew stay in plate lunch rotation. On Tuesdays, it’s always smothered liver served over rice, and on Thursdays, pork chops, fried or grilled.

Thanks to Girouard’s boyfriend Roddie Romero’s gardening prowess – he’s almost as good at gardening as he is at playing accordion with his band the Hub City Allstars – those salad greens, herbs and tomatoes are freshly picked.

Norbert Restaurant

At Norbert's, home cooking is what's for lunchAt Norbert’s, home cooking is what’s for lunch — Photo courtesy of LafayetteTravel.com

Lilly Mae Norbert and her family have been feeding the small town of Broussard in Lafayette Parish for 50 years. Lilly Mae learned how to cook from her father and opened Norbert’s in 1970, serving the likes of smothered okra and corn machoux alongside rice and gravy.

Located in a bare-bones café at 521 Ave C since 1977, Norbert’s is run by Lilly Mae and her husband John, a butcher by trade, known for his boudin and cracklins. Show up weekdays between 10:30 am and 2:00 pm for plates of smothered chicken, beef tips, fried chicken and Lilly Mae’s liver and onions.

Dwyer’s Café

Three generations of cooks at Dwyer'sThree generations of cooks at Dwyer’s — Photo courtesy of LafayetteTravel.com

You can get table service at Dwyer’s Café, but most folks walk through the restaurant and down a hall towards the back, where a steam table simmers the plate lunch specials of the day. The café was opened by Stanley Dwyer in 1965, then his son Mike took it over when he passed. Now, Stanley Dwyer’s grandsons Brett and Craig run the place.

Monday through Sunday, the plate lunch menu ranges from smothered chicken and pork chops to braised calf tongue in gravy on some Tuesdays, an especially popular dish.

Rachael’s Café

Rachael's Cafe offers fit meal optionsRachael’s Cafe offers fit meal options — Photo courtesy of LafayetteTravel.com

No matter what Rachael Hebert has on her daily plate lunch special at Rachael’s Café, chicken fried steak is always on the menu. It’s a specialty at Rachael’s (pronounced Ra-shell’s): tender eye of round, flash-fried in a crisp, light flour coating and smothered with a savory white gravy flecked with pepper.

Daily plate lunch specials start on Monday with meatball stew and progress through the week for hamburger steak, rolled round steak, pork roast, shrimp stew and catfish courtbouillon. For the more health-conscious, the menu’s fit meals section features the likes of grilled tilapia, salmon and tuna steak, with steamed and simply prepared veggies on the side.

Scratch Farm Kitchen

Scratch Farm Kitchen specializes in farm-to-table pretty platesScratch Farm Kitchen specializes in farm-to-table pretty plates — Photo courtesy of Jesse Guidry

Farm-to-table isn’t usually associated with plate lunches, which is why the pretty plate lunch at Scratch Farm Kitchen in downtown Lafayette is such a wonder. Owners Jamie Vickery and Kelsey Leger are all about sourcing from Louisiana and Mississippi farmers, and they offer vegan, vegetarian and meat options.

Their plate lunches cost a little more – $14 to the usual $10 and under – but everything on the plate is either made, cured, fermented or raised by them or folks they know. Their meat and three is a protein which might be jerked chicken salad, pulled mojo pork or a veggie patty, along with sides such as pickled beets, hash potatoes, grits or grilled broccoli.

Their plate lunches aren’t just pretty, they’re delicious.

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