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March 16, 2011

The Taste Bud: D. Nalley’s is the diner time forgot

On “The Andy Griffith Show,” Andy and Barney were constantly eating meals at “the diner.”

Of course, the Bluebird Diner was also where Juanita, Barney’s on-again, off-again squeeze, worked, but in spite of that obvious lure, it still remained the most convenient option for a quick, hot meal in Mayberry for local law enforcement.

The quaint portrayal of that diner always intrigued me, depicting a slice of small-town America from the 1950s and early 1960s, before Egg McMuffins took over as the nation’s standard breakfast fare.

Enter D. Nalley’s, located at 970 S. Third St. (in Louisville, not Mayberry). Walking in, one almost expects to see Barney sitting at the counter drinking a cup of coffee, waiting to nab a jaywalker crossing the street from Weaver’s Department Store.

The décor at D. Nalley’s consists of neatly kept red vinyl booths, white Formica tabletops and blue-and-white checked valances lining the tops of the windows, which run the perimeter of the small, square structure. It screams retro.

The place opened in 1967, according to the menu, and one wonders while looking about if some of the servers and regulars may have been part of D. Nalley’s from the start. One recent weekday, as my friend Kirk and I awaited our lunches at D. Nalley’s, we noticed a booth with four elderly men enjoying a meal and a spirited chat.

Kirk wondered if they’d been sitting there since the ’60s themselves.

Them?” I said. “They’ve been there since the ’50s.”

The aura of the place is time-warped in from the past, and so are the food and prices. Perhaps best of all, the servers are friendly and the atmosphere is laid back — kind of like Mayberry. When I went back a few days later for breakfast, the server hand-wrote my order on an old-fashioned order pad, stuck it on a carousel, spun it so the cook could see it, and then rang a bell. Ding!

In addition, at the lunch counter, which is lined with eight swiveling, red-topped stools to match the booth seats, there are covered desserts — homemade, in fact. It might be chocolate cake or apple pie sitting there, staring at you. Calling you. Yeah, it’s a miracle Barney Fife didn’t weigh 300 pounds.

When Kirk and I went to D. Nalley’s for lunch that day, I ordered a Nalley Burger, a half-pound patty on a bun with plenty of crunchy, fresh onions, a thick tomato slice, cheese, iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise. For around $6, you also get a mound of crispy crinkle fries and coleslaw.

Kirk’s Mighty Dee burger was, as he described it, kind of a diner version of a Big Mac, with two patties covered with the usual. It was “solid,” he said. “It didn’t knock my socks off, but there was definite sock movement. I’d say they came down past my shins.”

Nalley’s also has a variety of sandwiches and sides, from tuna salad to grilled chicken, and from mac and cheese to pickled beets. Are you a light eater? You can get cottage cheese with peaches or pineapple for about a buck-fifty.

A few days after our lunch, I discovered breakfast at Nalley’s is probably the way to go. I stopped in one morning before work and there were only a couple of other people there. Not only was I able to enjoy a peaceful breakfast — try that at a fast-food joint — but for about $3.50, I enjoyed two big fluffy biscuits topped with thick, peppery sausage gravy, along with a side of three pieces of crispy-fried bacon.

The gravy was thick, and the hint of darkness suggested there was a bit of sausage grease in the mixture. The biscuits had been cooked to golden brown from top to bottom and were clearly made from scratch. Nothing seems to come from a can at this place.

I’ve had a lot of biscuits and gravy over the years and never found any that could top my grandmother’s. D. Nalley’s is about as close as I’ve come to matching the biscuits and gravy that were served up for years in Mammaw’s kitchen. And that’s saying a lot. Something tells me it’s a breakfast even Aunt Bee would be proud of.

(Shame Juanita wasn’t there, though; I was going to ask her if she wanted to take a drive out to the duck pond to watch the submarine races.) 

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