The reward for several hours spent at church on Sunday was a trip to Britling’s Cafeteria in the Mt. Brook shopping plaza for lunch. Britling’s was famous for its southern-cooked vegetables (which meant pork fat in the pot), selections of meats and vast array of desserts that sat seductively at the end of the line, next to the cash register. Almost every Sunday we’d end up there, still in our dress clothes, waiting in a serpentine line to get to the steam tables of food. Britling’s was a hit with most people in town and a regular stop for the post-church crowd. Perhaps the need for sustenance and to beat the extended line formed by hungry parishioners was one of the reasons the congregation got so restless if the minister talked too long. I recall many days driving up to the strip mall and rushing into Britling’s only to meet a sea of legs and arms, a mass of people who had arrived before us. My father would rant quietly and begin his nervous gesticulations and the rest of us did our best not to complain about the sounds being made by our bellies.
Sometimes we’d wait in line for 30 or 40 minutes; the food was that good….at least as cafeterias go. For a small person, the wait was worse because the line to get to the servers was down a narrow chute, flanked on one side by a tile wall with mirrors at the top and on the other by a 4 foot tile wall that opened onto one of the large dining areas. For an adult, this provided some viewing pleasure as she could look at herself in the mirror, checking lipstick and hair, or scan the crowds of diners already enjoying their lunch of meat and three. People watching was the other past time at Britling’s as there was the regular Sunday mix and the staples, the elderly, often blue-haired crew that ate at the cafeteria regularly. As a child I’d stand patiently in line, staring at my father’s trouser leg or my mom’s shoes, so eager to be able to see above the dividing wall and onto the tables at the restaurant. I’d measure my growth by that wall and was thrilled when one day, perhaps I was eight or nine, that I was able to pull myself up and peer over its ledge, no longer limited to tunnel vision.
So waiting in line at Britling’s was part of the Sunday ritual. Like cattle, we’d shuffle along the narrow corridor toward the front, where the holy grail of prepared foods awaited. There was no better feeling than to get close enough to read the menu board, posted at the start of the line where diners picked up their plastic tray and silverware. It was a black board with white plastic letters, alerting the ravenous pack to upcoming delights like turnip greens, mac and cheese, green bean almandine, fried trout, veal patties and chicken breasts. One of my parents would read to me the menu and we’d all cross our fingers that the dishes we’d chosen would still be available and not “sold out.” That was a most depressing feeling, to have your heart set on a huge serving of mashed potatoes and meatloaf only to find the tray where they once lay empty. That was the cost of arriving late at Britling’s.
I’m not really certain why I ever contemplated the menu board because I think I ate the same meal every time: a mysteriously thin patty of beef topped with a pickle, French fries or mashed potatoes, a side of green beans and, if my parents were feeling generous, a parfait cup of banana pudding lined with ‘Nilla wafers. Perfection. Eagerly we’d move along the line, asking the servers, clad in dingy white aprons and hair nets, for what we wanted. “Serve you?” the women would query. We’d pile our trays full and head toward the cashier perched at the end of the line, diligently ringing up sales and rarely cracking a smile. She was conducting serious business.
To help diners to their tables, Britling’s had a host of waiters who’d carry your trays for you to the selected table. Most of these waiters were African American men, many older with white in their hair, and they all wore burgundy jackets and black pants. My mom or I would skirt ahead of the waiters carrying our long-awaited meals and find the perfect spot to settle, hopefully in the front room where a wall of plate glass windows gave an unobstructed view of the parking lot or anyone passing by on the sidewalk. Dad or Mom would then rustle about in their pocket or purse to get out some change, usually a quarter, to deposit on the tray of the man who brought our food from the register to our table. I wonder how much those men made in a day…There was one waiter at Britling’s who only had one hand, so he kept his empty sleeve neatly tucked in to his pocket and could only carry one tray at a time. Initially I was afraid of him but after seeing him for so many years, I used to look for him, hoping he’d carry my tray and asking if we could tip him extra.
Britling’s was a Birmingham landmark and we continued to go there, especially on Sunday afternoons, until I went away to college. Of course, once I was bigger, the tiled pathway from the entrance to the food didn’t seem so expansive and looking out over the dining tables en route to the trays and steam-warmed dishes wasn’t so exciting. I still enjoyed the paper-thin beef patty and had grown bold enough to ask for extra pickle. Sometimes the serving woman would oblige and sometimes I’d get a glare, as if I’d ask to look up her uniformed skirt, and she’d pass my plate on down the line, one lonely pickle atop my meat. I learned to tip the waiters more generously and to watch the regular diners, the “blue-hairs”, more closely, fascinated by their formal attire and slow movements from plate to mouth.
Even after I moved away, I’d often return to Britling’s when I’d visit Birmingham, nostalgic for my childhood haunts and those over-cooked, meaty vegetables. It was shocking to return one year, sometime in mid-1980s to find Britling’s gone, my familiar landmark next to Western grocery had been replaced by a designer store. I often wonder what a happened to all those servers and waiters and where the local elderly went to locate really soft veggies, Jell-o and an affordable lunchtime meal. I wonder, too, where most families go after church in Birmingham and doubt that any place could be as tasty or as memorable as the original Britling’s.