August 1, 2008

EATS: Magnolia Diner Serves Pinewoods Fare

By Kat Bergeron, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

Aug. 1--SAUCIER -- Magnolia Diner serves up a taste of rural life and the foods that Southerners hold dear. Grits with your eggs? Which sides with your smoked baby back ribs? Gravy with your roast beef po-boy?

Weekday breakfast, lunch and early dinner are served here in Saucier, in the simple small white cinder block building trimmed in green. This site on U.S. 49 has served as a restaurant for eons, although Jeff McDaniels opened his Magnolia Diner there only six years ago.

Come on a Friday evening, the one day he stays open until 8 p.m., to experience his grilled ribeye steaks and BBQ ribs. The rest of the week, he happily leaves the cooking to his staff of four. After all, he does have a longtime second job as a dirt hauler.

"Hey, Miss Brenda, how y'all?," he greets a customer, then turns to explain, "This place is smooth in the middle of country people. Good folk."

One small section of a wall is decorated with photographs of country singers he's met or heard in concert, and magnolias decorations make the diner live up to its name.

This is a meeting place for friends who live nearby, a convenient lunch spot for workers in nearby utility centers or construction sites, or drivers headed north. It's about as casual as they come, seats 50.

"You've probably heard the old saying that truck drivers know the best places to eat," said McDaniel who grew up in Memphis and moved here in the 1970s. "Well, I'm a 30-plus years truck driver, and I told my wife when we opened that at least 80 percent of the people are going to like what I like. If I don't like it we won't serve it."

The occasional 18-wheeler is parked in front, but many customers are locals in pickup trucks, cars and trucks hauling farm equipment. McDaniel depends on word of mouth for new customers.

His wife Debbie used to eat lunch at this location when she worked at a nearby state job. After the owner decided to close, Debbie talked her husband into taking the plunge. He upgraded the menu and appearance and renamed it "Magnolia" after her favorite Southern icon.

As you might expect in this pineywoods community, Monday's special is red beans and rice, and Friday is fried catfish. A daily special plate at $5.95 illustrates McDaniel's philosophy of tempting locals not to "drive to town," which means "to the Coast."

"I have to make them wanna stop here because of the food and the prices," McDaniel said.

Brenda Bothwell is sold on that philosophy.

"I've lived in Saucier 20 years and this is the best food here, a good atmosphere," Bothwell said. "Four to six friends and I meet here every week for a two-hour breakfast. But his ribs are to die for."

On Friday nights, a half-rack with two sides (including homemade coleslaw and potato salad) is $13.99. This is a diner, not a BBQ eatery but his pulled pork plate, available most of the time, is popular.

"Restaurants are a tough business, but we enjoy it," said McDaniel. "This is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody."

About the restaurant

What & Where: Magnolia Diner, 20364 U.S. 49, 11 miles north of I-10.

Food: Breakfast includes bacon/sausage, egg, grits specials, omelets, breakfast sandwiches from $1.75 to $6.35; Lunch includes $5.95 plate specials plus assortment of sandwiches, po-boys, wraps; Dinner includes lunch plate specials until they run out, plus such meals as hamburger steak, shrimp or country fried steak. Friday nights add BBQ and grilled ribeye steak, $13.99.

Senior citizens: Beginning Aug. 1, 10 percent discount from 3-5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and all day Thursday

Hours: Monday-Thursday 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Fridays 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Phone: 228-539-9760


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