The Nitty Gritty Cafe would feel right at home in Mayberry. It's a friendly place, a cozy space, with cooks who know their way around a kitchen. Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, The Nitty Gritty serves up a feast of Southern favorites.
The food at Nitty Gritty has a decidedly down-home flavor. Daily specials are printed in the menu, but hand-lettered signs posted on the wall above the open kitchen entice with additional offerings. At least 12 sides are available each day, such as mac and cheese, turnip greens, potato salad and peas, along with a featured dessert.
There's also a selection of burgers, entree-size salads, sandwiches and hot dogs. These Super Dogs, as it turns out, are the reason the restaurant exists. Owner Jamie Aman and her mother, Lorraine Knox, perfected their chili recipe on family and friends before hitting the festival circuit.
"We did that for a little over a year," Aman said. "Now, here we are, a full-service, family-style restaurant."
The daily specials cost $6.79 for a meat and two sides, $7.99 for a meat and three. The choices are hamburger steak on Tuesday, meatloaf on Wednesday, a fried, boneless chicken breast on Thursday, fried catfish filet on Friday and Saturday.
Saturday specials also include a ribeye steak served with baked potato, salad and garlic bread ($13.95) and a 10-piece fried-shrimp dinner served with two sides and a choice of bread ($10.95). After 4 p.m. each Friday and Saturday, the catfish is all-you-can-eat for $13.95.
Aman said the catfish has become a favorite even for customers who thought they didn't like catfish. She'll give a free sample in an effort to win people over.
"It's farm-raised catfish, so it never gets to bottom-feed," she said. "There's no muddy, fishy catfish taste."
Customers who order from the daily specials get a complimentary bowl of pinto beans (made from dry beans soaked overnight).
I've been a return customer since trying the chicken tender platter ($7.49). It comes with a choice of a side and bread, along with ranch or honey mustard for dipping, though I usually forgo the dressing and add a second side to make it more of a meal than a snack.
At Nitty Gritty, you can forget what you think you know about chicken tenders. These are bigger than the norm, obviously fresh and hand-breaded when ordered. The breading, a Nitty Gritty signature blend, is light and well-seasoned, so these are tenders that actually live up to the name. With four large pieces, I usually eat about half with my veggies and take the other two home. On my last visit, I paired them with green beans, seasoned to perfection with chunks of bacon.
Desserts include banana pudding, Ooey Gooey Butter Cake and Hummingbird Cake, all made from scratch.
The Nitty Gritty is the kind of place where the staff greets regular customers with a "Hey, honey, how are you?" chorus. Aman is quick to offer samples to guests unsure of a dish or remove a charge from a ticket if an item is unsatisfactory.
This actually happened on one of my visits when my dining companion misread the menu and ordered the porkalini sandwich, made with pork tenderloin. She was expecting more of a barbecue-style sandwich and was disappointed that the meat was a deep-fried filet (as stated in the menu). It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what she wanted. She pushed it aside and ordered a chili dog instead. Aman removed the charge for the sandwich, without it being requested or expected, saying she wanted customers to always have a good experience.
That's the kind of customer service that engenders repeat business.
The restaurant will seat 40, Aman said. Maneuvering between the seven tables in the front dining room can be a bit of a squeeze, especially after the meal. The kitchen is open, so you can watch dinner being prepared. A chalkboard on one wall details the daily specials. The space is clean and bright but otherwise nondescript.
The Nitty Gritty Cafe has an inviting atmosphere with owners who seem eager to please. Cooking, Aman said, is a way to show someone you care, and she wants her restaurant to feel like home.
It's that kind of thinking that may be her true recipe for success.