Friends and readers often ask for restaurant recommendations during the summer months as they head south for beach vacations. Thankfully, the southern part of our state is packed with great places to eat. I can add a new name to the list of must-try restaurants when you’re traveling through or near the Hattiesburg area. The Midtowner, located across from Southern Miss in The District at Midtown, serves breakfast and lunch in a nostalgic setting. It’s an experience you won’t forget, especially combined with the outstanding food.
When planning his sixth restaurant, Robert St. John wanted to create something different from the somewhat-upscale eateries he’s opened around the Hattiesburg area. When you enter The Midtowner anchoring the end of the brick center filled with retail shops and St. John’s own Midtown Doughnuts, you realize he went way back in time to create his newest space.
How far back? Picture a "1940s diner," the vision St. John used to create The Midtowner. Mind you, he wasn’t around in the ‘40s, but always admired the aesthetics and “visceral connection” of old-school diners.
His vision was so strong that tile-layers purposely pulled up small patches of octagonal tile near the doors and booths to resemble a worn floor. Wood paneling from a bygone era lines the cozy booths. Black and white historic photos from 20th century Hattiesburg, Camp Shelby, and Southern Miss’ early days line the walls.
Besides booths, diners can sit on bar stools at the front counter or shoulder-to-shoulder at tables filled with an eclectic group of business people, retirees, families, and college students. St. John accomplished his goal of creating a “neighborhood diner,” and once the food arrives, it’s evident his dedication to detail extended to the menu. Spoiler alert: The Midtowner serves some of the best fried chicken and chicken and dumplings I’ve ever tasted.
But first, I have to start with the breakfast menu. Breakfast was really the impetus behind the opening of the restaurant, St. John said. Almost any breakfast dish imaginable is on the menu. Portions are hearty and prices are reasonable, making it the perfect spot for hungry students and coffee clubs. There’s not enough space to list the multitude of breakfast item, but when it comes to the classics, The Midtowner has it covered. Eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, grits, biscuits, and toast can be ordered to your liking and in any combination you choose.
There’s the number one ($8.50) complete with two eggs, choice of bacon, sausage, or ham, choice of potato or stone-ground grits and cathead biscuit or toast. Or, try The Midtowner ($12), which includes country-fried steak topped with sausage gravy, two fried eggs, and choice of potato. Other favorites are the hearty Southern sampler ($9), a cathead biscuit topped with fried ham, sausage gravy, two fried eggs, and a side of stone-ground grits and the economical real deal breakfast meal ($6), which comes with two eggs, choice of potato or stone-ground grits, and a pancake.
Speaking of pancakes, if you’ve read St. John’s food column over the years, you know he’s often in pursuit of the perfect pancake. So it's no surprise The Midtowner’s menu is packed with his favorite breakfast item. Choose from among the short or fat stack platter ($6-$8, 3-5 pancakes) and choice of bacon or sausage; short and fat stick sweet potato ($7.5-$9.95, 3-5 pancakes) with cinnamon cream syrup and choice of bacon or sausage, and the fabulous sampler platter ($8) with a choice of three delectable toppings and flavors.
Health-conscious diners can select avocado wheat toast ($8.50) with tomatoes and a sunny-side up egg; Acai bowl ($9) with bananas, pineapple, fresh berries, granola, peanut butter, and honey; cinnamon fit French toast ($8) with strawberries and sugar-free syrup; and the skinny Elvis ($7) made with whole wheat toast, peanut butter, banana, honey, fresh berries, and granola.
There’s also a variety of cathead biscuits and gravy, French toast, waffles, omelets, and specialty plates prepared in every flavor imaginable and offering combinations of the best of traditional and not-so-familiar breakfast items.
Okay, now to the meal you definitely don’t want to miss. The lunch menu is filled with almost every “old school diner” dish you can imagine…and then some.
Let me cut to the good stuff and just say the fried chicken is the best I’ve sampled in the Hattiesburg area. It’s tender and juicy on the inside, crispy and golden on the outside. Picture your grandmother’s fried chicken or a platter at a church dinner on the grounds and you’ll have a close comparison. Lunch plates include your choice of meat with one, two or three vegetables ($10-$12), and four vegetable plate ($9).
Meat choices include Mam-Maw St. John’s fried chicken, country-fried steak with brown gravy, Midtowner meatloaf, fried Mississippi catfish, roast beef and gravy, fried pork chop with gravy, fried chicken tenders, chicken and dumplings, chopped steak with mushroom gravy, and chicken pot pie.
A friend and I sampled the aforementioned fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, and meatloaf. All three were some of the best variations we’d ever tasted.
We were equally impressed with fresh vegetables like skillet corn, fried okra, collard greens, butter beans and black-eyed peas. There’s also mashed potatoes or rice and gravy, broccoli casserole, cheese grits, squash and green bean casserole, mac and cheese, potato salad, and coleslaw.
A variety of salads is on the menu, along with creative sandwiches like the Midtowner ($10) filled with pastrami, Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Thousand Island dressing on rye bread; meatloaf ($11), Hattiesburger ($10), hot roast beef ($9), and one Elvis would’ve loved, the pork chop sandwich ($8).
The Midtowner is only open in the evening on Friday and Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. for “family fish night.” During those hours, “all-you-can eat” thin-fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried chicken tenders, French fries, slaw, hush puppies, passed vegetables of the day and other delicacies are served family-style for $16.95 per person.
The Midtowner is located at 3000 Hardy Street across from Southern Miss in The District in Midtown. Daily hours of operation are 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week.