Though most visitors to Lafayette may associate the area with our more famed Cajun and Creole culinary fare such as 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 a high calorie count.
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, home-style cooking, with the convenience offered by the buffet line. 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 rich, roux-based gravy for tomorrow’s lunch. With the addition of rice—a regional commodity—and a stewed vegetable or two, the plate lunch was born.
At every plate lunch house throughout Lafayette, variety is crucial. For example, the menu at Landry’s Café serves up weekly standards, daily specials, side dishes, and additions. Here, the array of dishes rotate in and out of availability to the point where frequent customers can set their clocks to the menu. But here in the land of rice cultivation and culture, it’s rice and gravy that matters most to the Café’s dedicated clientele. “It’s rice and gravy, rice and gravy, rice and gravy, all day long,” says Denise Landry, who opened Landry’s in 2003. Landry’s celebrated gravy, a recipe that dates back to a restaurant her parents opened back in 1953. Darkened to the color of roasted coffee and infused with spice, the gravy is made fresh daily from pork roast drippings.
At the Creole Lunch House, Merline Herbert, who opened her restaurant in 1983, sees the plate lunch as nothing less than a celebration of South Louisiana’s joie de vivre and the comfort that an assortment of flavors can provide. “To me, that’s the joy of eating: to be able to get a taste of different things,” she says. For first-time visitors, Herbert might fix up what she calls the Rookie Plate, a sampling of just about everything on the menu. Long before she opened her restaurant, these foods sustained her family and countless Lafayette households for generations. Lunch was always “meat, rice, and a vegetable, be it beans or greens,” she likes to tell customers. “And believe it or not, until you’ve had some meat and rice and vegetables, you haven’t had lunch.”