Jackson’s oldest operating restaurant is a Capitol Street institution, but “institution” is too staid a word for this iconic diner where chatter, pace and familiar faces set a much livelier vibe. The rhythms of service and reliability of fresh seafood maintain the vibrancy that’s fed generations.
The Mayflower’s famous comeback sauce, a pepped-up house salad dressing and dipping sauce that’s a standard in the city’s Greek-heritage spots (and beyond), has been featured on the Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate.”
The Making of an Institution
Established in 1935 by Greek immigrants George Kountouris and John Gouras, Mayflower Cafe has anchored the corner of West Capitol and Roach streets since.
Third-generation owner Jerry Kountouris (George was his great uncle) asked his dad several times about the origin of the cafe’s name. Founders definitely wanted a seafood focus. He says, “They put it in The Clarion-Ledger, made a contest out of it for people to write in what they thought the name should be. And they picked ‘Mayflower’ out of all the ones that were sent in – I guess because they were Greek immigrants.”
“Mayflower was probably the most recognizable term.”
Any major changes or updates since? “I wish,” he says, breaking into a grin. Other than a dropped ceiling when they added air-conditioning in the late ‘50s or ‘60s, a change from paneling and addition of a slim mirror border along the booths, it’s the same beloved place it’s always been.
Roof damage from Hurricane Katrina brought the occasion for some refurbishing. Bonus: The work uncovered recessed octagon-framed windows that resemble ship portals — especially when they bookend trophy fish “leaping” toward a picture of the actual Mayflower. They add a nice touch, as does the beaded-board wainscoting.
He added a couple of ceiling fans then, too. “Actually, my dad (longtime owner Mike Kountouris) had some other kind of fans up here. They were real close to the ceiling. I wanted the kind that dropped down, to make it look more old-time cafe.”
That’s always been part of its charm. As a scene setter, it’s been featured in movies including “Ghosts of Mississippi” and more recently, “The Help.”
Fresh Catch is the Way to Go
Neon signs in the front window beckon with steaks and chops on one end and seafood on the other, but fresh Gulf seafood is the go-to here. I can’t remember the last time I glanced at the menu, since the waitstaff has yet to steer me wrong. Whatever fresh catch piques your fancy — that’s the way to go. Redfish is the Mayflower’s most popular pick, but fond thoughts of oysters, shrimp, soft-shell crab, pompano and lemon fish stick with me, too.
Preparation is simple, straightforward, secret.
“The sauce that my dad’s always used has got a base of Worcestershire, lemon juice — you know, all Greeks use Worcestershire and lemon in everything. If you add a little butter to it, it makes it even richer. So, basically, that sauce that we make has got four different seasonings in it,” Kountouris says, chuckling when an eavesdropper warns him off sharing secrets. No danger there. “No, I don’t tell ‘em about my seasonings.”
That recipe doesn’t escape the Mayflower kitchen.
Retro neon, tile floor, trophy fish, historical photos and snapshots of friends all work their old-school magic when I walk in the door of the Mayflower Cafe. It’s like dropping in on an old friend — one who’s gonna whip up dinner for you.
Desserts such as the lusciously refreshing lemon icebox pie bring things to a sweet finish.
And that zesty comeback sauce at the Mayflower — among the city’s best — is true to its name. The Mayflower Greek Salad — fresh lump crabmeat on a bed of lettuce with feta cheese, Calamata olives and pepperoncini peppers, drizzled with comeback, is a longtime lunchtime addiction.
Also on Kountouris’ can’t-divulge list, of course: the recipe for that stellar dressing. “I might write a recipe book for the Mayflower one day, and sell it,” he says. But, not today.
Want some? For that, welcome aboard.