Update June 2017: After decades of serving Joplin, Mary Lee’s Cafe has closed its doors.
When the sun peeks up from the horizon, and your stomach reminds you that it needs sustenance, you’ll find a wide selection of places where breakfast is served conveniently located just off the interstate on Range Line Road.
Familiar restaurants like Waffle House, Denny’s, IHOP, and Cracker Barrel offer hearty breakfasts to early morning risers, and with locations throughout the country, diners choose to eat at these restaurants knowing what to expect.
But while these restaurants offer familiarity, they don’t offer a true taste of Joplin. For those who are seeking satisfying meals served with a heaping side of hometown atmosphere, Mary Lee’s Cafe is “The Place to Be.”
Located west of Main Street, about ten minutes from the interstate, Mary Lee’s small stone building is painted a peachy pink color, and is accented with weathered wood shingles, giving it a homey appearance. On its west side, a broad pine tree sprawls its branches, partially blocking the building from view and causing passersby (like me) to drive past without noticing it.
Seeing the the crowded parking lot and folksy sign out front is what finally caused me to register the fact that I’d arrived at Mary Lee’s on a recent Saturday morning.
I was there to meet a group with whom I was doing an area tourism bus tour, and we were kicking off the day at this local hangout which has been in business for over three decades.
As I walked to the entrance, I saw a big group of people leaving the restaurant, looking relaxed and satiated. That’s a good sign, I thought.
Once inside, I saw that there were only about ten tables inside the tiny dining room. If that group of people had not left, I don’t think there would have been room for our large party.
While I waited for the rest of my group to arrive, I asked the waitress some questions, starting with the most important one: Who is Mary Lee?
“This is Mary Lee,” she said, pointing to a framed photograph hanging on the wall near the cash register. “She passed away in 2010.”
“This tells you more about Mary Lee and the restaurant,” she said, handing me a laminated page detailing the cafe’s history.
Mary Carlene Arnold and her mother Elda started the cafe in 1984, although theirs wasn’t the first cafe to operate in this building. In 1937, Jess and Elva Greenlee opened the Greenlee Cafe and chose this particular site because it was located next to the two hospitals in Joplin. At that time, the hospitals didn’t have cafeterias, so Greenlee Cafe’s strategic location made it popular in the neighborhood.
The cafe closed in 1964, and the building served other functions for the next two decades until Mary Lee and her mother breathed new life into it in the 1980s. Even though the neighborhood hospitals had closed their doors and constructed new buildings in the south part of Joplin, Mary Lee’s thrived.
With breakfast and lunch specialties like fluffy omelettes, German fried potatoes, biscuits with sausage gravy, tender chicken fried steak, potato salad, and hot beef sandwiches, Mary Lee’s was frequented by people who appreciated good home cooking.
After Mary Lee’s death, her sister Janice Tusinger wanted the cafe to continue operating, so she leased the space to longtime employee Helen Green and longtime customer Kenny Meistad, who continue to run the business today.
Fun Fact: Green and Meistad were married at the cafe in October 2010 by customer Dr. Andy Fritsch.
So much about that fact exemplifies dedication: to a person, to a business, and to a local gathering place that provides food and comfort.
Let’s start with the food. When our party was ordering, the waitress advised the man sitting across from me to get the small size of biscuits and gravy, and the customer seated behind us – a regular – chimed in that she agreed.
When that happens, you know the portions are going to be huge.
And they were.
I ordered the Spanish omelette, a fluffy bed of eggs filled with spicy salsa and topped with gooey cheese, plus crispy hash browns and biscuits and gravy for sides. The moment the waitress put my food in front of me, I knew there was no way I was going to finish my meal.
I sure had fun trying, though.
The biscuit was a large pie-shaped version of this Southern staple. After tasting a bite of its flaky goodness, I put aside the rest to take it home to my daughter.
Later, when I delivered it to her, she thought I was the best mom in the world. She also said Mary Lee’s biscuits and gravy reminded her of the first time she was introduced to this dish; her grandmother from Georgia had made it, and it was love at first bite. It’s hard to top Grandma Dot’s biscuits and gravy, but it appears that Mary Lee’s has tied.
As I worked my way through my enormous meal, another customer came up and started talking to a woman in our party. Apparently, he was one of Mary Lee’s regulars who was striking up a conversation with a newcomer, just as long-time locals tend do at this cafe. Clearly, there are no strangers here.
When the waitress came to box up the remainder of my meal, I asked her how often the “regulars” come. “Oh, we have some here every day,” she said. “Some come to eat, some come to drink coffee; some come alone, and some come to meet friends.”
More than just a cafe that serves good homestyle cooking, Mary Lee’s is a place that feeds the soul, and nourishes a sense of community.
Now I understand why Mary Lee’s loyal customers claim that it is “The Place to Be.”
*Note: Mary Lee’s Cafe accepts cash or check only. It is open every day of the week from 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and is located at 712 ½ West 20th Street. Click here to visit its Facebook page.
To read more about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.