A southern tradition kept alive: Jeff’s Family Restaurant serves generations-old recipes

Photo by Eric Goodwin / Assistant News Editor

Jeff’s Family Restaurant sits in a neighborhood far removed from the commercial and residential explosion that marks West Murfreesboro as a developer’s playground. Houses dating from the 1950s and ’60s sit adjacent to the restaurant on a street that sees walkers, bikers and neighborhood kids alike.

In the summer, ceiling fans try their best to cool down the grocery store-turned-dining-hall, but each time someone walks in, a new blast of heat infiltrates the establishment.

Named after the owner itself, Jeff Sowell, the “meat ‘n’ three” restaurant sticks to Southern traditions. Rather than approach dishes with a modern influence, Jeff’s focuses on generations-old recipes, opting to provide customers with a simple, familiar dish done well.

The restaurant has been around for 11 years. Sowell bought the property when it was vacant. Before then, the building had been Glanton’s Market. According to Sowell, it was one of the first businesses owned by a black family in Murfreesboro.

“We got a pretty good deal on (the building) because it needed a total renovation,” Sowell said. “We took a chance on it.”

For only $6.75, customers can get an entree with two sides. Options include dark or white-meat fried chicken, meatloaf, pork chops and catfish. As for the sides, there are turnip greens, squash, fried okra, mac ‘n’ cheese and other traditional Southern servings.

Customers wanting a hearty meal may choose to go with the classic “meat ‘n’ three,” which will tally to $8.90 before taxes.

With any Southern dish, cornbread is a must-have. Jeff’s serves hot-water cornbread, skillet bread, corn muffins and other variations of the soul food staple. Each day features a different special like catfish and rib tips or “all you can eat chicken liver.”

Sowell first began cooking for a living while working at a Holiday Inn in Nashville.

“Two cooks walked out one night, and the innkeeper came to me and asked me (if I could cook),” Sowell said. “Of course I said yes because it was a raise, so I’ve been cooking ever since.”

Before opening Jeff’s, Sowell worked in the corporate world, but it was “a corporate world I didn’t agree with.” He became a director of dietary services at National Health Care, but when the building burnt down, he became a regional director.

“I don’t like to travel, so I took a severance and started catering from my house,” Sowell said.

He then started serving food on-site to factory workers and finally decided to open up the restaurant.

Sowell said he grew up with the food he serves at the restaurant today.

“We didn’t pop out to McDonald’s,” he said. “A good home-cooked meal was all that mattered back then.”

In an age where signs for chain restaurants dot the landscape along any interstate in the U.S., Jeff’s maintains the traditional mom ‘n’ pop feel that seems to fade more each year.

“We try to give it the home feeling,” Sowell said. He serves soul food because he “didn’t like the chain thing.”

Recipes passed down through the generation still exist at Jeff’s.

“Our grandparents, of course, did the basics, (and) made the best of what they had. And that’s basically what I’m serving,” Sowell said.

Sometimes tradition works best. The fried chicken is moist on the inside but doesn’t sacrifice the flaky, crunchy fried skin on the outside. Green beans are lightly peppered but rich in flavor, soft but not soggy.

The restaurant boasts outside on its sign, “Jimi Sowell’s ‘Nana’s Desserts, Cakes and Pies.’” Customers may choose from whatever is available that day, including chess pie, German chocolate cake and pecan pie.

Sowell has seen the city change in the 18 years he has lived in the neighboring town of Christiana.

“It’s growing fast,” Sowell said. “As a matter of fact, when I moved out here, Highway 231 was a two lane street. Now it’s four lanes. All the farmers are selling off, and subdivisions are popping up out there.”

Despite the rapid influx of residents and commercial business Murfreesboro attracts each year, Jeff’s is here to stay. Customers match the face to the name, and the restaurant serves as a reminder that an old town full of culture and heritage still persists in the face of dizzying change.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Tayhlor Stephenson, email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

For more updates, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter/Instagram at @Sidelines_Life.

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