Defined as a place with a plate lunch or dinner that offers a choice of one meat entrée and three vegetable sides, meat-and-threes first began to proliferate in the South during the early 20th century. The restaurant was a result of changing needs of many of the region’s workers. As Dr. Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor of American Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, explains, “Meat-and-three restaurants and cafes of the 1920s to the 1950s reflect the significant labor changes of the New South as the region transitioned from agriculture to industry and southern cities like Durham and Charlotte became working downtowns filled with a mix of mercantile, government offices, and professional buildings.”
New cafes created a place where office workers could buy cheap, fast and filling meals. (This was not necessarily the case for factory and millworkers, who were forced to eat on the job as they found time.) But while the table around which many gathered to eat lunch changed from a home setting, the menu did not—at least not overnight. “A plate lunch of one meat and three vegetable or starch sides, served with a buttered yeast roll, harkened back to the traditional mid-day dinner of rural Southerners, but was served uptown," Ferris said.
After World War II, restaurants increasingly popped up outside of town centers with the rise of the highway system and a car culture financed in part by money that veterans received from the GI Bill. With this came an onslaught of barbecue stands and drive-up cafes like the Toot-N-Tell restaurant near Highway 70 in Garner.
Opened by Brookie Pool in 1946, the drive-in sold hot dogs (six for $1), hamburgers and milkshakes to customers who tooted their horn and told their order to a carhop. The restaurant's popularity took off by word of mouth. “Who can forget the stupid name?” says Donna Sparkman, Pool’s granddaughter, who co-owns of the family business.
Sparkman’s parents, Maryann and Bill Sparkman, bought the restaurant from Pool’s estate in 1968. At first they held on to their day jobs: Maryann was a secretary at Corning Glass and Bill was a Garner police officer. But by 1976, they took on the Toot-N-Tell as full-time work, expanding the building seven times to add seating. Today, the Toot-N-Tell winds back through three large dining rooms. The second eating area houses a salad bar, and the third, a long buffet of meats, vegetables and desserts.
For years, the Toot-N-Tell was one of the few restaurants in town. “When CP&L’s [Carolina Power & Light] lights went out, we were the first to get turned back on because we were the only restaurant,” explains Sparkman. The extra space was necessary to accommodate crowds. And the buffet, she says, was created in order to serve people as fast as possible.
Yesterday evening, I visited the restaurant for dinner and ordered the Toot-N-Tell Tuesday Special: baked chicken with rice or spaghetti, two sides and a dessert ($5.50). I went with rice, incredibly fresh field peas, creamy macaroni and cheese and a humble scoop of banana pudding. Basically, in the stress of choosing from 17 vegetables, I ordered mostly starch. I don’t regret it.
Alongside the majority of the evening’s customers—a mix of old and young, black and white—I sat in a well-worn booth in the first dining room. There, framed photographs hung around the perimeter depicting sports teams, soldiers, brides and grooms, and the Toot-N-Tell’s many expansions. It was reminiscent of a family’s hallway, where various pictures and awards often hang on display. For Donna Sparkman, who has worked beside her mother at the restaurant for nearly 40 years, it is something of a home.
“This is my whole entire life,” she said, surveying the dining room and her customers. “I really feel like this is my house and I just go home to sleep.”
Sparkman was sitting with me at my booth in order to tell me about the restaurant’s history. My dinner arrived and sat on the table while we continued to talk. She eyed it nervously while I took notes. “Let me warm that up for you,” she eventually offered, the perfect host. I might as well have been at Sparkman’s own kitchen table. Along with a dozen other diners in the restaurant, I was.
The Toot-N-Tell (903 W. Garner Road, Garner, 772-2616) is open 5:30 a.m.—8:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday and 7 a.m.—3 p.m. Sunday.