Photography by marianne todd
Mississippi meat and threes have long been considered home to some of the South’s best cuisine. One of the state’s oldest is Jean’s Restaurant in downtown Meridian. Opened in 1975, the popular breakfast and lunch spot serves traditional Southern food in a casual atmosphere that hasn’t changed much since Jean Bullock opened the Front Street restaurant more than 40 years ago.
“Ms. Jean was a real sweetheart and a character,” says current owner Jamie Johnson. Jamie grew up in Jean’s; his mother, Diane Trammell, was a waitress there from 1992-2006 before purchasing the property from Bullock when she reached retirement age. When Trammell passed in January 2017, he took over the restaurant.
“Ms. Jean was the first person you saw when you came in, and you couldn’t miss her. She had big hair, crazy dresses, and she was always dripping with costume jewelry,” Johnson says. “She had a big, burgundy Cadillac, and every day she pulled it up right out front, and Leo would go out and park it for her.”
Leo Rogers, long time cook at Jean’s, also remembers Bullock fondly. He started in the kitchen doing dishes in his early 20s around 30 years ago. “When I started out there were some older ladies here in the kitchen, and the recipes came from them,” Rogers says. “As far as we knew they made them up, and eventually they taught me. The pork chops and the steak are two of my favorite things, and they’ve stayed the same. I changed the dressing in the turkey-and-dressing just a bit. It’s a little bit of old and new.”
Rogers isn’t the restaurant’s only longtime employee. Cook Louise Blanks started at Jean’s in 1981. “My auntie cooked here, and she got me the job. I was the salad girl at first, and then I started making the cornbread. That’s how we made our way up to becoming cooks, and now I cook like how she taught me.”
As a boy, Jamie spent his summers working at Jean’s during middle and high school, watching Ms. Jean oversee the dining room and kitchen. “When she came through the door in the mornings she would say good morning to every customer and then walk into the kitchen and just start yelling. She would pour on the perfume, and you could smell it from the door,” he says, laughing.
Jean’s wasn’t always on Front Street. The original location occupied the former Rayner Drug Store building, which later became a tattoo parlor. “And as far as I know they still have our old original hood in the back of the building. They would turn it on and smoke cigarettes back there,” Johnson says. “But we’ve been at this location for as long as I can remember.”
Part of Jean’s charm is the decor, largely unchanged for decades. Vinyl green bar stools extend from near the entrance to the kitchen, abutting an old, low, bar with mismatched coffee cups stacked behind it. Most of the pictures on the wall are of regulars who have since passed away. One is an old man whom Jamie remembers from childhood, who rode his bicycle to Jean’s everyday and brought his own cup for coffee. Another is a semi-famous college athlete. In the middle, there’s an old wooden cross. Collages of staff photos from the '80s and '90s decorate the wall behind the cash register, next to a picture of Ms. Jean with hair that matches the bright, white strand of large pearls around her neck.
There’s a second dining room to the right with a hodgepodge of items surrounding a round table. There’s a two-pot electric burner for coffee, a sign that says ‘no whining’ and a coat rack. “That stuff belongs to the customers. They call themselves the Round Table Coffee Club. There used to be a lot more of it back here but over time some of them have passed away and people have removed it,” Johnson says.
The club’s history is older than Jean’s – dating to 1950, and at one point numbered more than two dozen people (mostly men). They met at Jean’s five days a week, discussing politics and current events with opinions representing both sides of the aisle. “This place has always been a big political hot spot,” Jamie says, gesturing to a picture of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran taped to the wall behind the round table. “Every year the candidates for governor and other offices always come in here and in Weidmann’s."
Breakfast is traditional Southern fare – grits, biscuits, eggs, and bacon. Lunch features plate lunches that change daily, with popular favorites including salmon croquettes, fried pork chops, smothered hamburger steak, and fried catfish. Each entree comes with vegetable options including yams, lima beans, collard greens, and fried okra. The restaurant also offers a variety of sandwiches including a burger, BLT, and club sandwich.
Jean’s is also known for desserts. The pie recipes have been passed down from a past employee to Johnson’s mother, who later passed the recipe down to Jamie. “I don’t make the pies now,” he says. “Our newest employee has that job, and all the other recipes are in the cooks’ heads, which is one reason I have to make sure I’m nice to them.”
The area surrounding Jean’s is in the midst of substantial development, with the MAEEX (Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience) museum set to open in April and the Mississippi Children’s Museum set to begin construction soon. Other new businesses are due to open along Front Street, including a bakery cafe, The MIX (near the Max), set to open this fall, and renovated warehouses that will become a shopping district. In the meantime, long-term construction has made it harder to get to Jean’s (and other Front Street shops), one of the many reasons nearby business owners are excited to see the projects completed.
Johnson also has planned upgrades to Jean’s, mostly slight cosmetic changes including repainting the walls and removing the carpet from the back dining room. “These pictures by the round table will go back up as soon as we’re done painting,” Johnson says. “We don’t want to change the atmosphere too much.”
Johnson looks forward to continuing the traditions that Ms. Jean established and that his mother further cemented. “Sometimes at night I’m sitting at home with my wife and I’m like, we own Jean’s Restaurant,” Johnson says. “This is crazy. I can barely believe it. It’s an institution and an iconic piece of Meridian’s history.”
Want to go?
Located at 2114 Front Street, Jean's is open
Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m