Eating Out with Jeff Jones
By ADAM ARMOUR
Five minutes before they open to welcome the lunchtime crowd, Dorsey’s Jeff Jones is already peering through the glass doors of Tupelo’s Forklift restaurant, hands cupped just beneath the brim of his trademark white paper braid fedora to block the reflection.
He comments on what he sees … the look of the decor, the yellow Edison-style light bulbs, the shelves crammed with jars of pickled veggies at the far end of the dining area. “It looks great,” he says.
This is the first important step in his process — getting a feel for the place.
“It’s not just the food,” he says, turning away from the glass. “You eat with your eyes first. Anybody can serve something that tastes good. It’s special when you build a world around it.”
Jones should know. For more than five years, he’s been routinely chronicling through his words and photographs visits to local eateries.
He posts them to his blog, Eating Out with Jeff Jones, and his Facebook page of the same name, where he’s reviewed more than 140 restaurants and foodie events from across Northeast Mississippi, often multiple times.
Over the years, he’s become a sort of go-to when it comes to local eateries.
Want to know if that hole-in-the-wall is worth a visit? Ask Jones.
Which plate is a can’t miss? Jones will have an opinion.
How’s the atmosphere at that new joint? Chances are, Jones has already been. He’ll happily share his thoughts.
Jones doesn’t claim to be a critic, per say; he describes himself as a restaurant promoter. Think of the Food Network and the places their hosts visit. They don’t criticize the dishes; they celebrate them. That’s Jones, more enthusiast than connoisseur.
“My goal is to show people the greatness our area has to offer,” he says. “They’ve gone to all the trouble to build a dream and make it come true. I want to put forth as much effort in what I do and help them out.”
Once inside the restaurant, Jones bypasses the host entirely and begins flitting around the joint, snapping hundreds of photos with his phone.
Several members of the waitstaff stop to watch him, clearly baffled.
Eventually, he chooses a table, placing his back to the wall, the whole dining area spread out in front of him.
“When I first walk in, I try to find the best vantage point,” he says as he looks over the menu. He looks up, grins. “Plus, if you’re not sure what to eat, you can watch as they bring out the orders.”
Jones first began writing about local restaurants because, frankly, nobody else really was. He’d post about a restaurant on Yelp, or read the handful of Google Reviews about some place he’d heard about. But there wasn’t any one spot to scope out the oodles of local eateries that seemed to come and go like trays on a buffet.
There were so many places he’d never visited — simply because he didn’t know what to expect when he got there. He asked himself how many other people were doing the exact same thing.
“There are great restaurants around that you’ve never heard of,” he says. “There may be a restaurant you’ve driven by a hundred times but never stopped at because you don’t know what to expect.”
Many restaurants, he says, shutter before most people ever have a chance to sample one bite. Jones considers that a minor tragedy.
“People miss out on some really great food,” he says, his voice just north of wistful. His goal is to give his readers the feeling of having already stepped inside a restaurant before they ever do so. Of making the unfamiliar eatery as comfortable as a familiar haunt.
In his pieces, he describes the food he eats, the atmosphere of the restaurant, the decor, the patrons and his own personal connection with the place, if he has one.
When the waiter stops by the table for the first of what will be nearly a dozen times during the meal, Jones grills him on the menu, asking questions about the ingredients of the food, what people are saying about it and what his personal favorites are. Jones typically orders a variety of plates during his visits, and this time is no exception. He orders bruschetta for starters and the meatloaf for the main.
“I’ve always loved food,” he says as he waits on his order. “I have a day job. That’s where I do my work. This … this is my passion.”
For a moment, he waxes poetic about chow.
“To me, good food is like music: There’s enough variety for everybody to enjoy,” he says.
The waiter returns, arms filled with plates of food. Unloaded, there’s little room left on the table. Rather than start his meal, Jones begins meticulously arranging his plates. He snaps photos of his food, dozens of them, carefully posing each course to hit the perfect angle.
As he rotates his meatloaf, he chuckles.
“I take so much time trying to get just the right photo of my food that it gets cold,” he says. “But that’s all right. They spent time plating and trying to make the food look really good. I want to make sure I get it just right.”
His work doesn’t go unnoticed. His Facebook page alone has more than 3,200 followers. Posts are accompanied by dozens of comments and questions from his readers. Even the customer at the table next to his said she’s read some of his reviews.
Partway through his meal, Forklift’s owner, Fulton native David Leathers, drops by the table to speak with Jones and have their photo taken together.
“Visiting local restaurants like this, you get to meet so many people,” Jones says. “It’s not just about the food; it’s about the community.”
Jones hopes that comes across in his writing and photographs.
“A place doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be good and it has to be run by good people,” he says.
Once he finishes his meal, Jones orders dessert — a monstrous ice cream sandwich that look as if it’s meant to feed a family. When the waiter asks if Jones will be sharing it, he puffs.
“Share?” he asks, then laughs as if the suggestion is absurd.
Jones spends so much time posing the sandwich for photographs, most of the ice cream is melted by the time he gets around to actually eating it. When he picks it up, rivulets of ice cream run down his fingers.
He shakes his head and sighs.
“I suffer all the time,” he says. His wry grin stretches open, transforming into a mouthful of food.