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 so much good stuff here that I knew that it wouldn’t be long before I made a return trip here, and on my second visit, I had Amy with me. This time, the rotation worked out for me to sample the meatloaf, a dish that I had been excited to try long before I first visited Gray Bros. It was truly difficult choosing between the meatloaf and the fried chicken on my first visit, and I promised myself that when I came back (let’s be honest, with a lot of these places, coming back is a “when”), I would try the meatloaf. Of course, planning ahead as I usually do, I made sure that we came on a day (Sunday) where the meatloaf would be on the menu.
Holy cow, was it totally worth the drive and the planning. The key to any good meatloaf is the glaze, because it penetrates through the loaf to impart flavor from first bite to last. Too little or the wrong flavor can absolutely ruin an otherwise good meatloaf. Gray Bros., of course, understands this completely and slathers on the ketchup glaze like there’s no tomorrow. The sweetness of the ketchup is perfect working with the savory flavors of the meat, and it’s simply a wonderful taste. I honestly think it rates just above the fried chicken here, and that’s pretty high praise. The potatoes and mac and cheese (can’t beat a classic) were just how I remembered them, absolute perfection.
Amy opted to go in a different route, choosing the crusted tilapia with thinly sliced potatoes and a broccoli and cauliflower cheese sauce pairing. The fish is another thing they do very well here, as it’s cooked to perfection and moist from beginning to end. Fish can be very tricky to get right, because overcooked fish is dry and lacks flavor and undercooked fish is not something people want unless it’s sushi. But as with everything else, Gray Bros. delivers the perfect texture and flavors, spicing it perfectly. Can’t ask for anything more. I can’t say it’s quite as good as the meatloaf or chicken, but that’s because those two are truly special dishes.
Unfortunately, coming back after Thanksgiving meant that strawberries were not in season and thus no strawberry pie, much to Amy’s disappointment. But that was okay, because as we said earlier, Gray Bros. has plenty of desserts to go around, it’s just a matter of picking the right one as a replacement. For me, that meant the chocolate-peanut butter cake. I love peanut butter and will choose its flavor over any other dessert unless I have a really good reason not to do so (examples including the strawberry pie and the legendary banana cheese pie). With the strawberry pie out of the rotation, it was time to see what this cake had to offer.
Truthfully, it gives the strawberry pie a run for its money. The icing is perfect, a beautiful mix of chocolate and peanut butter flavors, and the cake is moist and filled with great peanut butter flavor. I loved every bite of this cake, and there was no way I wasn’t going to finish it, no matter how much I had eaten of the meatloaf and sides. It was that awesome.
What I am to peanut butter, Amy is to chocolate, and she opted for the chocolate meringue pie. Truthfully, I don’t have a high opinion of meringues, because I think the marshmallow topping that a meringue is just detracts from the real reason you’re eating the pie, the flavored filling. But this meringue works, because the chocolate flavor is excellent. It doesn’t matter what part of the food world you’re ordering from, Gray Bros. knows what it’s doing with everything.
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.