The weathered, heart pine, wood-frame building has been perched on the side of U.S. highway 49 since 1940. That was the year the original business opened as a tavern looking to capitalize on selling cold beers to soldiers stationed at Camp Shelby during WWII.
After the original roadhouse closed down the building served as a justice of the peace court, a used furniture store, and a gas station that was so old-school the attendants operated the pumps via hand-crank.
Then Don Gill and his wife Elle came along, and breathed life into what had become an abandoned building. The year was 1989.
On a recent weeknight during a chaotic thunderstorm the tiny steakhouse was nearly deserted as rain and wind sheared across southern Mississippi. The dirt and gravel parking lot hosted a rusty Oldsmobile Cutlass, and a couple pickup trucks but most of the good people of the area were parked out on their Broyhills, and not in the market for a big steak cooked over a live fire.Walking into Donanelle’s feels like entering a crusty old prospector’s cabin up in the Dakotas. The small dining room has the air of a clubhouse, and features an arched window that allows diners to peer into the kitchen where a young country hoss is grilling beef steaks over a wood-burning fire.
Thousands of signed dollar bills are tacked up all over the walls and ceiling for a bit of campestral charm.
The foul weather has kept the crowd to a minimum but even a packed house could only afford a crowd of a couple dozen people with a few of those diners sitting elbow to elbow at the L-shaped bar.
At it’s heart, Donanelle’s is a roadhouse. The menu fits neatly onto one page, and only has a handful of items with eaters from the area bragging mostly about the ribeye steaks and fried catfish po boys.
It’s our waitress’s second day so she’s still getting up to speed on the few questions we have but suffice to say neither the onion rings or french fries are homemade.
While the restaurant is taking shortcuts on the sides they’re focusing plenty attention on the mains.
The one pound ribeye comes out perfectly cooked, and flaunting a thick char from being licked by the hardwood fire. It needs a quick dash of salt but otherwise is a grand riff on one of the great dishes of the roadhouse canon. A wan side salad could’ve been rescued by scratch dressing but that’s not a path the kitchen deigns to walk down.
Soundtrack: Hank Jr, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Molly Hatchett, Cody Jinks, and Charlie Daniels Band. George Strait is as urban-sophisticate as the hi-fi ever gets.The fried catfish po boy is a prize. The Gill family brings in Gambino’s bread from New Orleans, and sources the catfish from “up in the Delta.” Dressed out with iceberg lettuce, ripe tomatoes, and raw white onions; this sandwich stacks up well with the top tier of New Orleans po boy houses.
The loaf must have been drenched with a full stick of melted butter as it sat on the griddle.
There’s a funk to the catfish that is, after a fashion, appealing. If I were blindfolded I would’ve laid down hard-earned money that what I was eating was hardhead (Ariopsis felis) but the lady-owner tells me it is farm-raised, Delta fish, and I have no reason to doubt her.
Fetched up in a wood-paneled tavern in rural Mississippi where the sweet tea flows like wine, and the aroma of sizzling beefsteaks is wafting about is a fine way to spend a late-spring evening thunderstorm.
As we step outside into the post-storm gloaming it’s not hard to picture what Hwy 49 looked like when it was a dirt road carrying folks from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Devil’s Crossroads up in the Delta.
Clarksdale’s only four hours away I reason to myself, and Mr Eugene at Hicks Hot Tamales might answer to a late night rap on the door.
Shaking off my pipe dream I head south through the pine trees, and towards home in New Orleans.
4321 US 49