Jimbo’s: Hometown cooking in New Albany since 1967

Jimbo’s: Hometown cooking in New Albany since 1967

NEW ALBANY The timeless Mississippi diner survives at Jimbo’s in New Albany. The restaurant is full of red booths, men in caps, the smell of coffee and signs on the wall like “The First Electric Chainsaw” (a framed hacksaw with a chain instead of a blade, plus a glued-on electric cord).

Owner James Cox said business is steady, despite 17 chain operations popping up in town over the past eight years. “Everybody just knows Jimbo’s. … After serving the people for that many years, you get a reputation for good or bad.”

Belgian waffles one of the quirky specialties there are $3.99, made with malted pancake flour and served with bacon or sausage. Cox compared that to the same breakfast at the Memphis Peabody’s Dux Restaurant, where the price would be about $10.50.

The difference in atmosphere between the two dining sites seems to be just fine with Jimbo’s regulars.

Down-home comfortable

Jimbo’s is a one-story building of gray brick and pale yellow board-and-batten planking. You enter surrounded by classic diner trappings: Gumball machine to the left, greenish fish tank to the right and one of three brass fans circling lazily overhead. Yellowing business cards stud a cork board by the door, hawking local gun repair shops, mowing services and tire stores.

The walls wear their share of decorative country metal, from scales and rusted two-man saws to a horseshoe (hung the correct side up, so the luck won’t run out). Coins from Mexico, Canada, the Cayman Islands, Britain, Thailand and Germany spangle the cashier’s countertop beneath a scratched plastic sheet. An old white plastic pickle jug is the tip jar.

Tins for Snickers, Animal Crackers and Nabisco Premium Saltines stack atop a low room divider between two booth rows. Coca-Cola metal signs, mirrors, clocks and even a red cap dot the walls. Taped-up clippings of Mississippi State’s basketball glory plaster a mirrored wall, but a ’95-’96 University of Mississippi Pom-Pon Squad calendar is nailed nearby.

To the far right, eight men in jeans, plaid shirts and down vests or taupe slacks and pale dress shirts sipped coffee Monday morning. They helped themselves to refills, chuckled and talked as they roosted beneath their own sign: “This table reserved for golfers, fishermen, politicians and all other fancy liars.”

Mostly, they argue about college sports.

“Man, I tell you what I’m gonna do,” one started. “I like you so much, that we’re gonna do this for you. Just admit that Ole Miss is sorry, and we’ll tell everybody you went to State. We’ll do that for you because we like you.”

His coffee buddy shook his head. “Now don’t take this the wrong way. But since you’ve been on my case ever since I walked through the door, let me tell you what’s been wrong with Mississippi State’s football program for the past, oh, 40 years. They’ve been more concerned with what Ole Miss is doing than they are with their own program. And that’s the truth!”

Friends chuckled. In a lull, another man drawled, “Have y’all noticed that every time we talk basketball, he keeps talking football?”

CNN Sports shows off the latest basketball plays behind them on a 46-inch big-screen TV perched atop a red checkered tablecloth and an old pedestal diner table. Atop the TV, a dusty oil lantern and a cigar sign compete for space.

Jimbo’s through the years

Begun in 1967 as a Tastee-Freez franchise, Jimbo’s switched to an independent business about seven years later. Customers dreamed up the new name in a 1976 contest, back when the restaurant had 19-cent hamburgers and 19-cent shakes. Both the building and the menu have grown: Adding the dining room in 1976 just about doubled the original structure’s size. Today it seats 60 to 65 and takes seven full- and part-time employees to run it.

Being a Union County native made Cox a familiar face when he opened the business, but he said being homegrown only goes so far. Good service and good hot-off-the-grill food are his business “secrets.” The food is dished up by a smiling waitress in stone-washed jeans and a crisp pink cotton shirt with rolled-up sleeves. During lulls, the morning cook cleans tables and then sits down to crochet a few rows on a yellow, green and white granny square bedspread.

Cox gives his employees credit for the restaurant’s comfortable mood. “People do business with a place a lot of times because of who works there, not who owns it.”

Those loyal regular customers keep business steady, he said. “Course, we count them regular if they come twice.”

He said being in the right place at the right time helped establish Jimbo’s, back when his and another restaurant were the only active ones on the east side of town. Old Highway 78, now called Mississippi 178, poured a river of traffic right by his front door. Today, four-laned Mississippi 78 blasts all the way to Memphis, skimming by New Albany’s south edge and putting Jimbo’s off the beaten path for most hungry highway travelers. The restaurant is past New Albany Cemetery and just a couple of blocks east of downtown.

It’s a “locals’ place.” Longtime customers from Union County’s 23,000 residents and the surrounding counties keep Jimbo’s occupied.

Cox said he has never thought about moving. He likes being accessible for downtown customers. “To relocate would be just like starting all over again.”

Thumb’s-up recommendation

Mr. and Mrs. Harold Livingston of New Albany are two of Jimbo’s faithfuls. He is semi-retired, working two or three days per week, and she is a full-time school teacher. They eat at Jimbo’s at least twice weekly because it’s easier than cooking and, as Harold Livingston said, “The food is delicious.”

Livingston sighed as he talked about the ribeyes, the best waffles he’s ever eaten and his favorite the chicken tenders. He advised trying a fast food hamburger and then biting into one of Jimbo’s charbroiled burgers. “It’s just like eating a steak, it’s so good.”

They also like the atmosphere, lingering over their meals to chat with friends. “It’s kind of like eating at home when all the family’s there and you’ve got a big table.”

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