Experience Delicious Southern Cooking at Countryside Cafe in Ootlewah
“We’re a destination drive,” owner Marlene Geren says. “A drive to the country for good food and good service.” Off the beaten path of nearby Chattanooga, Countryside Café is located at the corner of Ooltewah and Cleveland, about 10 minutes from I-75. The café invites local regulars and busloads of travelers alike to experience warm welcomes, superb country cooking and plenty to choose from.
The country cooking that has been voted “Best of the Best” multiple times by the Chattanooga Times Free Press includes something for everyone: broasted chicken for classic Southern taste buds, wings for football fans and lesser-known veggies like ramp for the more adventurous. On any given day, the rotating menu can boast 10 to 15 meat entrees to choose from, 20 to 30 vegetable dishes and about 20 desserts. (Their banana pudding – served warm, straight off the stove – was voted fifth best in the state in 2017.)
When Hamilton County Farm Bureau members Geren and her husband, Ponder, opened Countryside Café in 1990, she brought family recipes from her parents’ restaurant, the Kreme House. Staples like chicken and dumplings, chicken and dressing, skillet-fried sweet potatoes, skillet-fried okra and mashed potatoes have been on the menu ever since, although they may be served on specific days.
“Everybody in Ooltewah knows Wednesday is chicken and dumpling day,” Geren says.
Many other dishes have been added to the menu as new cooks bring their own recipes and local farmers supply seasonal – and sometimes surprising – produce. Aside from the staples, Geren says, “We don’t even know what we’re cooking next week! It depends on what we get. Whatever’s in season, we make the most of it.” Autumn is the season for their beautiful rainbow chard, among other veggies.
Most vegetables are prepared without meat, and many contain no animal products at all, providing vegan options for guests. “I think our younger generation appreciates that,” Geren says.
Countryside has been around long enough now that the younger generation who grew up eating there is returning with their own children. Kids can get a reward for cleaning their plates: ice cream decorated with M&Ms. “It’s a good way to get them to eat their veggies,” Geren says, but laughs as she adds, “My husband’s goal is for the kids to want to come back.”
Guests get a taste of Southern charm and comfort, too, from the handmade eight-person swing outside to the Mason jar lights inside. Servers work as a team to welcome and wait on visitors. They keep the sweet tea coming and pack up fresh coconut cream pie to go for families who drove 10 minutes to get there, as well as families who drove hours. “Visitors tell me it’s a little surprise, out of the way,” Geren says.