Gray Bros. Cafeteria, Mooresville, Ind.
Generations ago, cafeteria-style dining used to be the way people ate out when they didn’t feel like cooking. Before McDonald’s, before TGI Fridays, long before Five Guys (which I do dearly miss), a night out meant standing in line and grabbing a tray, then loading it up with whatever you wanted to create your meal, followed by paying at the cash register and finding a table to dine.
For the most part, cafeteria-style dining is a thing of the past, replaced by sit-down restaurants and buffets. But there are still a few places left that do things the old-fashioned way, and in the shadows of the Indianapolis International Airport in Mooresville sits Gray Brothers, which is as old-fashioned as it gets and has been since 1944. It might just be a southern Indianapolis thing, given the nostalgic feeling of Edwards Drive-In, but whatever the reason, Gray Bros. remains a throwback, and a wonderful one at that.
Basically, the experience at Gray Bros. is like your high school cafeteria, except about 10,000 times better. When you start through the line, everything is available for you to take, and you’re allowed as many or as few items as you want. If you see a good entree, all you’ve got to do is ask the server behind the counter for a helping. In the mood for a salad? Choose the ingredients that you like. Want some dessert? Grab a slice of pie. All of it is available to you, to be paid when you get through the line. Then you’re left to grab your condiments and silverware, or you can let a waitress do it for you. That is an oddity about cafeteria dining, apparently, because it does come with a food server.
Of course, the ability to grab all you want does come with a warning. This is NOT a buffet place. Cafeteria-style dining means you take as much as you want, but it’s not all-you-can-eat. Whatever you take, you’re paying for, and the cost of your bill at the end of the line is determined by how much is on your tray. Basically, the rule of thumb is to make sure you’re going to have enough room for everything that you’re putting on your tray, because all of it adds up.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try a good mix of what Gray Bros. has to offer, because you’d be doing yourself a great disservice. Gray Bros. features a rotating menu, only offering a select number of entrees each day. Show up one day, and you might be making a choice between roast beef and fried chicken among the nine or 10 options available. Another visit might see meatloaf and Swiss steak among the choices.
That’s because, similar to Yoder’s, everything served is made fresh in the restaurant. On my visit, the best thing on the menu was the fried chicken, which was nothing short of incredible. Fried chicken can be either outstanding or rough depending on the quality of the preparation of the bird. A poorly-prepared chicken turns out greasy rather than crispy, making for an experience that just doesn’t work as well as it could.
As you might guess, that isn’t the case here. I’m not sure if it’s pressure-fried like at some places, but however Gray Bros. prepares it, it’s crispy outside and moist and juicy inside. This chicken was good from first bite to last, and I can definitely see why the menu calls it Hoosier fried chicken. It’s quality the state can be proud of for sure.
With the sides, few things go better with chicken than macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. I should say here that I’m normally not a fan of gravy on potatoes. Call me weird, but I think that in a lot of cases, the gravy overwhelms the potatoes and the flavors don’t work right. Not the case here. This gravy is like a beef broth that works with the potatoes rather than dominating them. These might have been the best potatoes I’ve eaten outside of Idaho. Simply can’t top the Gem State in that department (because fresher is better), but Gray Brothers certainly knows how to prepare potatoes. The macaroni is cheesy, creamy, flavorful and hot. Perfect comfort food. Throw in a freshly-baked roll and some sweet tea (yes, you can get sweet tea in the North, believe it or not), and you have one heck of a meal.
But you don’t have a complete meal. At least, you don’t have a complete meal by Gray Bros. standards. No, to get a complete meal, you have to add some dessert. Most likely, that dessert is coming in the form of pie. Gray Bros. serves 15 different pies on its menu, such as lemon, apple, banana and chocolate. I think there’s also a sugar cream pie in there (Indiana’s signature dessert), but I don’t know for sure. Cakes are also plentiful.
But the king of the desserts at Gray Brothers is the strawberry pie. Truth be told, you can’t really get much more simple than it. It’s simply fresh strawberries packed in a pie crust and covered with strawberry glaze, then topped with whipped cream. But simplicity is sometimes amazing. The glaze heightens the flavor of the ripe strawberries, making for a strong taste throughout, which is offset a little by the homemade whipped cream. The whipped cream prevents the taste from being too much, and the result is the most simple pie there is becomes the most memorable. One thing I do recommend with this pie is to get a water along with your beverage (it’s free near the end of the counter, although I only grabbed one because I didn’t know you get refills in this setting. You do.), or else you’ll ruin the taste of the drink.
There’s really nothing negative about any of this food. There’s a reason that Gray Bros. is on its fourth generation and people line up outside the restaurant before it opens in a small Indiana suburb. It’s because it’s really, really awesome. This is a must-visit in the Crossroads of America.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Gray Bros. is open from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and it’s always popular.
Wait during my visit: Actually not long, despite starting outside the building. Gray Bros.’ cafeteria-style keeps the line moving quickly, so you move through fast. However, tables are first-come, first-served since you pick your table. Plan accordingly.
Location: Gray Bros. is at 555 S. Indiana Street in Mooresville, Ind.
Cost: Varies. You decide the cost based on how much you want to eat. Normally, a full meal with two sides, roll, beverage and pie will cost you about $15 or less.
Parking: Plentiful. There’s a big lot surrounding the restaurant, although it can get full.
Seating arrangement: Old-style chairs and tables in a wide-open space.
Website: Gray Brothers
Signature items: Comfort foods, cafeteria dining.