Though most visitors to Lafayette might sooner associate the area with our more famed Cajun and Creole culinary fare (jambalaya, crawfish, and gumbo), it is the rice and gravy-centric plate lunch that fuels the people of Louisiana’s Acadiana region. Consisting of meat, a gravy-covered starch, a pair of vegetable sides, and a simple piece of bread — and often all served on a single plate — the plate lunch emphasizes speed, affordability, and caloric heft.
A close cousin to the meat-and-three restaurants found throughout the South, the history of Lafayette’s plate lunch houses is rooted in the marriage of rustic, homestyle cooking with the convenience offered by the buffet line. In the late nineteenth century, cafeteria-style lunchrooms appeared throughout America, introducing patrons to self-service, the steaming lunch counter, and the ubiquitous plastic tray.
In South Louisiana, rural meat markets were likely the first to sling portable plate lunches to a hungry working-class crowd. Instead of disposing of their scraps and other unsold cuts, butchers smothered these meats in a rich, roux-based gravy for tomorrow’s lunch. With the addition of rice — a regional commodity and staple of local tables — and a stewed vegetable or two, the plate lunch was born.
For the owner of the Creole Lunch House, rice is the grain of life.
Growing up just outside Lafayette, Merline Herbert fondly remembers her mother cooking rice each and everyday to serve for lunch. When her family couldn’t get a heaping helping of rice, they suffered. She recalls taking a family vacation to Tennessee, where people ate potatoes and salad as a side dish, instead of rice. For three days the call of rice and home beckoned. “Next time we come here,” her father bemoaned, “we are going to bring the rice pot.”
There is no rice cooker at the Creole Lunch House, no microwavable grains. “We cook rice the old way,” she says, “on the stove.” She maintains a confidence in the virtues of the rice pot.
Herbert learned to trust her pots as a young woman, cooking alongside her mother at home for her four siblings. Cooking rice, smothering meat with onions and peppers, simmering beans, and stewing greens. Instead of entering the restaurant business right away, she worked for over two decades in the public school system, working as a middle school teacher, advising future teachers at the university level, and acting as a principal.
Too restless to enjoy retirement, Herbert, with her husband’s prodding, opened up the Creole Lunch House in 1983. She brought to the menu the same smothered dishes and sides that she had been cooking for most of her life. Meatball fricassee on Mondays and Wednesdays. Stuffed baked chicken on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fricasseed chicken dished up everyday. And rice and gravy served everyday.
Herbert makes sure never to run out of prized starch. “We serve rice with everything but root beer,” she likes to joke, “and that’s because it’s too sweet.” When the occasional customer asks for potatoes, she informs them that this is rice country — we eat rice here. Sometimes other, carb-conscious patrons, will ask to skip the rice. “Where you from?” she teases. “What’s the matter with you? You can't eat without no rice. It’s not going to work. My meat is not going to stay on that plate.”
The Creole Lunch House is also justly famous for their stuffed breads. These are fresh-baked, fist-sized rolls, loaded with sausage, cheese, and jalapeños. Another version comes packed with crawfish and gooey cheese. Since introducing her Creole’s Stuffed Breads in 1985, Herbert has had a hit. They are sold throughout Lafayette area hospitals and lunchrooms. The rolls might be more recognizable for attendees of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where Herbert has personally dispensed her breads from a booth since 1991.
Today, Herbert might not go to the extremes of traveling with a rice pot, but she is never far from a bowl of rice. Before returning home at vacation’s end, she drives straight to the grocery, where she picks up some meats to tenderize in gravy and a bag of rice.
Rice makes lunch, rice makes the meal, and at the Creole Lunch House, it is always time for meat and rice.
It’s one of Lafayette’s most iconic signs: a man in a chef’s coat and toque rendered in stained glass. He holds a long carving knife and fork, and slices into the breast of a roast turkey. A pineapple and cherry-covered ham, fashioned from slivers of yellow and red glass, rests adjacent to the large bird, awaiting the chef’s blade. Elbows akimbo, he smiles at the viewer with cheery upturned brows. Arcing above his head, like a child’s representation of the sun or a large halo, is the name of this restaurant: “Dwyer’s Cafe.”
Stanley Dwyer, that stained glass saint of a chef, opened his place in 1965. For two decades prior he had worked for the Stinson family as a cook at a series of downtown Lafayette diners. First at the Gem Restaurant, located in the Gordon Hotel. Then, following the death of Gem owner Wilbur “Pop” Stinson in 1953, a cafe named Mrs. Pop Stinson’s, run by his widow, Essil.
Those Stinson-owned eateries were emblematic of the diner culture of the era: a menu of sandwiches, soups, salads, and a selection of daily specials. Stanley Dwyer could prepare it all. A native of the Breaux Bridge-Parks area, he had learned to cook in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, where he was schooled in butchery, baking, and just about every other kitchen task. When he bought and renamed the restaurant, which he ran alongside his wife, Yuline, he brought in a steam table to expedite the lunchtime rush—Dwyer’s would become a plate lunch paradise.
Come to Dwyer’s today and, if you don’t order off the standard menu, you’ll be ushered down a long hall to the back of the restaurant, to the steam table full of lunch entree options. You can get roast pork or beef most any day of the week, Monday through Sunday, along with a variety of smothered choices: smothered chicken, smothered pork chop, smothered steak. There’s more exotic fare severed every now and then. Look out for Tuesday’s calf tongue, or the stuffed bell pepper special. Fridays bring seafood, of course: shrimp stew, shrimp étouffée, fried catfish, seafood casserole.
As you walk back to your table, tray now spilling over with meats (or fishes) and vegetable sides, make sure to take a look at the wall of fame on your left. Photographic portraits of Stanley Dwyer and his son Mike, who purchased the restaurant from his father in 1975, wearing a matching white chef’s coat and toque, his workaday uniform until his dad passed away in 2001. There are photos of longtime employees and Mike’s sons, Brett and Craig, who now run the restaurant. Mike still shows up for kitchen duty most every day, and, towards the end of lunch service, greets exiting customers with hearty shouts of “C’est bon!”
If the table is open, take a seat under Stanley’s stained glass window and, before digging in, perhaps offer a bit of thanks and praise that this Lafayette landmark lives on.
Above the cash register at Gary’s IG Grocery & Market hangs an undated black and white photograph of a round-faced man in coat, tie, and glasses. The fedora he wears slouches to his right. A cigar is balanced between three fingers of his left hand. He leans against an old Chevy truck, where a stenciled painting along the driver side door reads: Gary’s IG Gro., Lafayette, LA.
J.D. “Pop” Gary started his eponymous grocery some seventy years ago—no one knows for sure the exact date—in the Freetown neighborhood of Lafayette. For decades Pop Gary’s store was a community fixture, a one-stop produce stand, sundry supply house, and butcher shop. Everything could be delivered via that old Chevy.
By the 1980s, and the era of oversized supermarkets, Pop Gary’s son Wayne shifted gears, from groceries to gravy, and Gary’s became a neighborhood spot for daily plate lunches. As with any plate lunch emporium, rice and gravy form the foundation of most every order. Here the gravy’s base begins with the pan drippings from those smothered meats, bolstered with onion, pepper, garlic, and spice. It’s served alongside the hamburger steak special on Wednesdays and Thursday’s smothered steak.
Fridays fulfill the promise of seafood: crawfish fettuccini, crawfish étouffée, crawfish stew (a half-and-half order of both crawfish dishes served atop rice is strongly suggested). Po-boys are an everyday item, as are smothered beans—black-eyed peas or red beans depending on the weekday.
And then there’s the Big G Burger, a double-pattied, half-pound behemoth of a hamburger dressed with smothered onions. For breakfast, it’s topped with bacon and a fried egg (it’s okay to sleep in, the breakfast burger is served until Gary’s kitchen closes at 2).
Though the grocery business took a backseat to the plate lunches and burgers long ago, there are still a few treasures to be found on the shelves here, most notably Pop Gary’s original chow chow recipe. Sold in pint-sized jelly jars, this chow chow is more piquant, more vinegary than your traditional relishes, and makes a superb substitute for salsa.
Today, Gary’s is owned by Troy Kling, who stepped in four years ago. He didn’t change much, in his words, but “put fuel in the tank and change the oil.” He can be found most business hours behind the counter, answering the phone, and taking orders, all beneath that photograph of J.D. “Pop” Gary and his delivery truck. And though most all regulars think of Gary’s as a breakfast and lunch spot, Kling has no plans to remove the Independent Grocers designation from its business listing. Gary’s will always remain Gary’s, the store that Pop built so many decades ago.
John Norbert remembers when Broussard was a one-light town, before the highway came barreling through, back when gravel roads outnumbered paved, cows outnumbered people, and the people spoke French. Norbert grew up on a plot of farmland just east of downtown Broussard. He farmed, raised and slaughtered cattle, and worked as a butcher for various meat markets for 35 years.
In the 1960s, the plot of land that Norbert owned was bisected by Highway 90, the Evangeline Thruway. The highway would change Broussard, hasten its connection to the rest of Acadiana, and transform the town into a booming Lafayette suburb.
The walls of Norbert’s, the oldest existing sit-down restaurant in Broussard, which he owns and runs with his wife, Lilly Mae, tell this story. There are old photos of Broussard landmarks, quilts that portray the history of this town and greater Acadiana stitch by stitch. There’s also, in a simple, wooden frame he made himself, a photo of the first Norbert’s Restaurant.
In 1970, the Norberts opened their original location in downtown Broussard, where that lone stoplight would have been, on the corner of Morgan and Main streets. They bought a shuttered grocery store and inherited a savory hand pie recipe that came with the purchase. Meat, chicken, and seafood pies were sold alongside Mr. Norbert’s boudin and crackling recipes that he had perfected over decades laboring as a butcher. Together, husband and wife cooked and served po-boys and plate lunches—smothered meats and stews served alongside rice and gravy for $1.89 an order.
Seven year later, they moved the restaurant to the present location, perched on a plot of land Norbert owned that borders the Thruway. There is no online menu, no Facebook post updating customers on what the kitchen is cooking; you must simply show up and check the chalkboard of daily specials. Show up for the smothered chicken, the beef tips, the fried chicken, the liver and onions, or just a plate of vegetable sides. Show up for the rice and gravy, thinner than at other places, but packed with spice and meaty bits. Come for the po-boys, the boudin, and the pies, which have kept the Norberts in business for almost a half-century.
Mr. Norbert is 83 years old, and he still cooks and serves and greets customers five days a week. A man who has always had several jobs at once, he also mows yards, works as a school crossing guard, and teaches summer cooking classes for kids at Vermilionville. For years, he was an accomplished horse trainer—though he’s now retired, his restaurant’s walls are covered with photographs of his prize ponies. He’s also a Zydeco devotee. Photos of his favorite accordionists adorn these walls (Clifton Chenier, whom he still fondly calls “Clif,” was a regular), and when he’s not working he’s two-stepping at area dancehalls alongside Lilly Mae.
John Norbert plans to keep running his restaurant, he says, “as long as I got my health.” For the sake of Broussard and eaters everywhere, long may this icon keep cooking.
At T-Coon’s, the opportunity to grab a plate lunch stretches back beyond the traditional lunch time hours into the early morning. In addition to the standard breakfast of eggs, bacon, and grits, the menu includes omelets stuffed with pork roast, beef brisket, and homemade Louisiana smoked sausage. But the standout is the crawfish étouffée-filled omelet. The silkiness of the smothered crawfish dish tangles with the whipped eggs to form a creamy, butter-laden mishmash.
My favorite time to visit T-Coon’s is with the rising sun, when the spacious dining room is busy and chatter-filled, occupied with a mixture of workingmen and old-timers: fishermen and lawyers, retirees and policemen. A coffee carafe towers over each table so customers can help themselves to cup after cup of strong brew, while encouraging all to stay awhile.
Some T-Coon’s fanatics, myself included, have been known to stay through breakfast until lunch, when the menu shifts to a bounty of fifteen or so daily menu items and specials. There’s amazingly crisp fried chicken and hardy red beans and rice, but I gravitate towards the gravy-smothered meats: chicken, pork, beef, rabbit, turkey wings.
These were the dishes owner David Billeaud started cooking as a young boy alongside his mother. Before he was tall enough to reach the stovetop, he would stand on a stool to stir the pot of roux to make the gravy. Sometimes that roux would go into one of his childhood favorites, the smothered seven steak, a large and inexpensive cut of meat, named for its resemblance to the number 7. He remembers his mother dutifully portioning the steak into nine servings. Gravy made the meal.
In 1993 he took that gravy-making expertise and opened his restaurant.
Billeaud, who jokingly describes himself as the owner, manager, cook, and dishwasher of T-Coon’s, prides himself on the homegrown nature of his enterprise. His surname is “as Cajun as you can get,” as is the name on the outside of the building. The restaurant is named for his father, who earned the nickname, in his younger years, for being as mischievous as a raccoon. “Ti” or “T,” a shortening of petit, translates to “small” or “childlike” in Cajun French. Billeaud is as rascally as his father. He can often be found in the dining room, jumping from table to table, shaking hands and slapping backs, while sharing jokes and fishing stories. A prizewinning hunter and fisherman, Billeaud’s trophies and big-catch photographies line the walls of the restaurant.
His menu proudly advertises that everything is homemade, including the fresh-baked toast at breakfast and each side item, the stewed beans and greens, featured on the lunchtime spread. The owner himself catches the catfish that stock the courtbouillon — a thick seafood stew featured on Fridays — with bamboo poles from a freshwater bayou, located not an hour’s drive south of the restaurant. Likewise, the rice that fills each plate is sourced from local producers, thus making the plate lunch unequivocally local in nature.
It’s a decor decision so obvious that many first-time customers, including this writer, fail to draw the connection. The Lunch Box, a plate lunch and po-boy joint in the far reaches of upper Lafayette, perched near the Carencro border, is filled with lunch boxes. There are hundreds of them, constructed of metal and plastic, featuring decades of Americana, everything from I Love Lucy to G.I. Joe, beloved cultural icons lining a series of high shelves that ring the restaurant’s walls, staring down at customers enjoying one of the region’s premier plates of rice and gravy.
The lunch box collection started, in Delores LeBlanc words, “by accident.” In October of 1990, she and her husband, Cline, purchased a ten year old lunch spot located in a strip mall. Because their new restaurant was named The Lunch Box, they relocated a few old specimens they had accumulated over the years. As their business grew in popularity, and a move down the street provided more space to fill, customers began donating their old boxes. The LeBlancs soon started scouring flea markets for lunch box finds.
Delores and Cline entered the industry without having any restaurant or professional cooking experience. But it was no accident that The Lunch Box prospered. They shared kitchen and order counter duties, and expanded the menu they inherited. At high noon, the dining room is undoubtedly one of the most bustling in town.
Regulars come for the rich stews (meatball on Monday, chicken on Tuesday) and smothered items (Monday’s liver, Tuesday’s potatoes). Thursday’s fried chicken—also served baked for the healthy at heart—brings in the lunchers. But Friday’s seafood menu makes for the busiest afternoon. There’s always a crowd, and often a line out the door during Lent for fried fish, shrimp stew, and catfish courtbouillon. It’s also the only day where you can score a helping of the LeBlanc’s homemade bread pudding, served with each order.
You can also get the full seafood menu for supper. The Lunch Box is one the area’s few plate lunch places open for dinner—Thursday and Friday nights only. It is also, diverging from plate lunch tradition, open on weekends. Saturday delivers up a fried pork chop, Sunday a barbecue plate laden with a trifecta of pork, chicken, and sausage.
Everything is served with the LeBlanc’s savory rice and gravy. “It’s just homemade brown gravy from scratch,” Delores says. “But people love it, I tell you!”
Over 26 years later, The Lunch Box remains a family affair for the LeBlancs. Delores and Cline are helped by their son Chad and daughter Stacy, who makes the little pecan pies—her grandmother’s recipe—found neatly stacked by the cash register. So get in line, order up a plate, and scan the walls. You might not only find the lunch box you used as a kid, you might find your new favorite plate lunch.
Every morning, Monday through Saturday, as the sun dawns on the town of Broussard, Ton’s Drive-In bustles with patrons. They are men mostly, many retired, some up this early because their job demands it, overspilling the booths in the dining room, filling up on coffee and fried eggs on toast and, most satisfying of all, talk.
Each of these mornings, Karl Girouard, Ton’s owner and son of the founders Rosemary and Alton “Ton” Girouard, squeezes into a booth beneath a framed portrait photograph of his parents, whose loving smiles seem to fill the dining room and its patrons with a warm glow, and joins in on the coffee and conversation.
Ton, whose twin brother, Tim, ran a nursery down the road, himself once occupied this dining room morning and night with his personality and presence—drinking coffee and talking politics with the regulars, making sure the phone never rang twice. He opened the restaurant in May of 1963. It was a real drive-in back then, with carhops who paraded out trays of hot dogs, chili, fried chicken, and hamburgers to carfuls of customers. Ton was a war hero who drove General George Patton’s jeep in Normandy and acted as a French language interpreter for the U.S Army.
Throughout the Drive-In’s first several years, Ton also managed a hardware store in downtown Lafayette. So his wife, Rosemary, who had to leave her job as a dress shop seamstress, ran the restaurant during the day. It was she who operated the kitchen and, back when tiny Broussard started to grow and Ton’s relocated across the street—out went the drive-in and in went the town’s first drive-thru—added plate lunches to the menu.
Today, the daily plate lunch specials alternate between the familiar and the week-to-week changeups. You might find meatball stew on Tuesday, or you might find smothered pork. Fridays might bring crawfish étouffée or shrimp stew. But there is always hamburger steak smothered with grilled onions on Mondays, always smothered liver served over rice on Tuesdays, always pork chops, fried or grilled, or Thursdays. Broussard residents like knowing what they’re going to get when they pull into Ton’s.
Many locals earned their first paycheck working for the Girouards. The family likes to say, “If you grew up in Broussard, you have likely worked at Ton’s.” It was at Ton’s that Karl Girouard met his wife, Juanita Pourciaux, who began working here at the age of 16. Their daughter Hollie, who manages the restaurant, started working there as soon as she could reach the soda dispenser and wipe tables. “If you can lean,” she remembers her grandmother saying, “you can clean.”
But no matter how many cooks have moved in and out of the kitchen at Ton’s, Rosemary’s chili remains, as does the chicken and sausage gumbo, spicy and served when seasonally appropriate. But it’s the hamburger that the Drive-In is most famous for, a burger that has fed countless Broussard residents, visitors, or those just passing through, who have stopped in for a bite to eat and a bit of conversation.
Laura Williams Broussard simmered up her first pot of gravy to sell sometime around 1968. It was then, in her own home and kitchen, that she opened what was likely Lafayette’s first soul food plate lunch restaurant. She had been the best cook amongst her siblings, and took pride in feeding the family, before opening her home up to the masses. Located down a dead-end residential street, customers came from all over Acadiana to taste a bite of Laura’s gravy. Laura’s granddaughter, Madonna, remembers standing at a distance, watching her grandmother make each day’s gravy.
Fire destroyed Laura’s home in 1975, but her daughter-in-law, Dorothy Broussard, who everyone called Miss Dot, kept the gravy flowing from a second location through the next two decades. When deciding whether or not to pursue a third iteration of the family business, Madonna took that gravy recipe and made up her mind to cook things “the Laura’s way.” And in 2000, Laura’s II (that’s with the Roman numeral two) was born.
At Laura’s II, Madonna Broussard keeps many of grandma Laura’s original recipes intact. My favorite is the baked turkey wing, which arrives pterodactyl-sized. Big and meaty, stuffed with garlic, black pepper, and cayenne, its topmost layer of skin is crisped to a fine crackling from a final heat burst under the broiler. The original Laura’s offered the dish as a Wednesday-only special, but it has since proven too popular and is available seven days a week. Still, there’s never enough wings to go around. Customers often secure an order for tomorrow’s lunch while eating today’s. Broussard described it to me as “the race for the turkey wings.”
But Laura’s II talks more than turkey. Let’s take a deeper dive in that gravy.
At Laura’s II, gravy is more meal than sauce. Dark, rich, and peppery, the gravy here rises to levels of transcendence. It bathes meatballs and washes over rice. It sticks to the ribs, sticks to the fork, and, after just one taste, this gravy will stick in your mind. And no matter what you order along the buffet line — barbecued pork, fried pork chops, fried catfish, and all types of smothered meats and sides — you will get some gravy.
The gravy’s roux, or flour and fat base, is baked in the oven every morning, before being thickened with water and spiced. Seasoning is important, but the consistency is more so. The Broussards look for a viscosity that is not too gloopy and not too runny. They want their gravy to adhere to the accompanying serving of rice, rather than pool on the plate.
Dozens customers have been coming to the Broussard ladies for their plate lunches for over three decades. Some order the same thing at every visit. And as for a fourth generation of Broussard family restauranteurs, Madonna Broussard has been grooming her daughter, Lacey, and son, Olies, since they were young children. The future could bring Laura’s III, IV, V, as long as there is that gravy.