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Sunny’s Cafeteria enlightens tastebuds
By Fred Sauceman

This week food writer Fred Sauceman pulls up a chair at Sunny’s Cafeteria
Lydia Sonneberger and Ruby Malone aren’t just cafeteria owners, they’re amateur psychologists.

At Sunny’s Cafeteria in Johnson City, the last dishes to be consumed are the first to be seen. Pick up a red plastic tray, a stack of oversized white paper napkins, fork, spoon, maybe a knife that will likely go unused, and then there it is, a profusion of pies, cakes, puddings and cobblers. Banana pudding servings are a good five inches deep and garnished with vanilla wafers, whipped cream and a maraschino cherry.

Lydia and Ruby ease you into your dessert selection by placing the sugar-free pies, always wrapped in plastic, first. From there, the plastic disappears and the sugar and calorie counts climb until you turn the corner and confront the salads. They figure once you’ve seen the array of meats, vegetables and breads they serve seven days a week, you’d be discouraged from picking up a slice of lemon meringue pie or dark, fudgy chocolate cake if those delicacies came at the end of the line.

The game plan works. Hardly a tray slides down the line without something sweet tucked among the homemade rolls, fried chicken, oniony squash casserole and real creamed potatoes.



Location: Corner of West Pine and South Roan, Johnson City, Tennessee

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday, 10:45 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sundays, 10:45 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Sample prices:Fried chicken breast, $1.99; steak and gravy, $2.69; turkey and dressing, $3.99; vegetables, .99; casseroles, $1.29; cornbread salad, .99; banana pudding, $1.29; chocolate meringue pie, $1.29

Phone: 423-926-7441

Miscellany:Cash, checks, MasterCard, Visa

Modern-day dieters can always find guilt-free selections at Sunny’s, but this is food from the farmhouse, hearty fare you’d likely have passed to you in bowls at a pinewood table in a mountain boardinghouse 75 years ago, all adapted to the cafeteria line.

Back in the kitchen, cooks peel 50 pounds of potatoes a day, just for the “Real Creamed Potatoes” that are a permanent fixture on the lighted menu board. No matter what meat you order, you’ll most always be asked if you want a mound of creamed potatoes. And they’re flat out mandatory with steak and gravy, floured and browned cubed steak baked to fork-tenderness.

Sunny’s is a neighborhood restaurant right on the edge of Johnson City’s historic “tree streets” district that attracts everyone from chicken-tender-eating toddlers on brown plastic booster seats to jeweled octogenarian matrons retired from home kitchen duties.

There’s most always a police car in the parking lot. That’s a good sign, not for safety concerns, but because law enforcement people invariably know where to find the best, most unpretentious food in any community. Although I’ve never witnessed an act of violence that required the intervention of a policeman at Sunny’s, things got a little tense in the dessert section once when two hands went for the last piece of Coconut Crunch Pie.

Lydia Sonneberger, a Middle Tennessean from Alexandria, bought the former Usary’s Cafeteria in 1993 and slowly began to mix in recipes from family and friends. The Coconut Crunch Pie is a contribution from Lydia’s best friend Rosa Stokes, who called it “Miss Hattie’s Pie,” in honor of her mother. When Miss Hattie died, Rosa shared the recipe for the very first time outside the family with Lydia. The pie sits on a baked crust bottom and is filled with oranges, pineapples and bananas.

Knowing East Tennesseans’ love of soup beans and cornbread, Lydia and Ruby blend the two into a cornbread salad, bound together with mayonnaise, and studded with shoepeg corn, scallions and green peppers for crunch.

On Fridays, when you can get a platter-sized slice of real, unpressed roast turkey, that same homemade yellow cornbread becomes the basis for a perfectly seasoned scoop of dressing.

To comfort bereaved friends, folks have been known to order up a cluster of Sunny’s fried chicken breasts, transfer them to a family plate, serve the mourners, and not say a word about where the chicken came from, a bit of friendly trickery that makes Lydia even more proud of her cooks’ talents.

All vegetables at Sunny’s are priced at a penny under a dollar, including a full bowl of buttered spinach or collard greens, both especially good spiked with a few squirts of Bruce’s Tabasco Peppers in Vinegar from the condiment table. If there are several customers ahead of you in line, a good choice is the fried okra, which you can conveniently and neatly sample with your fingers while you’re waiting. Casseroles, like the broccoli and rice, go for $1.29 a serving. In the summer, for dishes like the squash casserole, Lydia and Ruby buy many of their vegetables from local farmers’ markets.

Smiling suns cover the walls at this busy, well-lit cafeteria, and the old Butcher Boy brand wooden door to the meat locker, dated May 19, 1949, is still there as a clanking reminder that the place was once a neighborhood grocery store.

Says retired Johnson City Police Chief Ron Street, “Sunny’s is easy-in, easy-out, and it’s about as close to home cooking as you can get away from your mother’s house.”


Food writer Fred Sauceman, the author of “Home and Away: A University Brings Food to the Table,” is the executive assistant to the president for university relations at East Tennessee State University. E-mail him at

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