On any given Saturday evening when the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra is in season, you’re liable to find me and my honey ensconced in a booth at the Mayflower Cafe in downtown Jackson. The Mayflower is one of those rare but beautiful fusions of very cool old building and longstanding local institution that produce a “place.” The neon signage, which lights the name and produces stylized waves moving around a projecting corner, makes you feel like you might very well be in the city, a very urban feeling. Inside, the black-and-white tile floor, the booths, and the lunch counter carry on the theme, except at the Mayflower, it’s not a theme–it’s reality. This is a real place with a long history, not a new restaurant that is attempting to re-create a version of history. Just as the Mayflower’s Art Deco style is actually grafted onto an older building, the current owners took over from the original restaurant owners a little while back but have carried on with everything intact.
The fact that it has the best seafood in town (and this is from one who has strong opinions about seafood) makes it all even better. The dinner menu is my favorite; although they do have a good plate-lunch, the service sometimes keeps you from keeping your one-hour lunch deadline.
The other thing I love about the place is the wide variety in people and generations I find there each time I go: there are always some very old couples who have been coming regularly once a week for decades, middle-aged extended families, and young couples with children; well-dressed legislators–usually identifiable by their very good hair–the khakis-and polo-crowd co-exist with the jeans-and-t-shirts and the artsy. Whenever a place has that many people who love it and support it, I feel confident of its preservation into the future. The Mayflower has continued to thrive despite the decline of downtown Jackson in the 1970s-1990s, but with the Second Coming of the King Edward Hotel one block away in a few months, the neighborhood is reviving itself, and the Mayflower should reap the rewards (hopefully without losing its real character).
In general, I think the “Preservation Movement” has done a better job preserving buildings than it has preserving places. It is useful to remember that the list that honors our nation’s historic buildings is actually called the “National Register of Historic Places” not the “National Register of Historic Buildings.” It takes both buildings and people to make a place, and that combination is harder in so many more ways to maintain and preserve than simply recycling a beautiful building through many uses. Thanks to the preservation spirit of the current owners, we can still enjoy this wonderful place called the Mayflower Cafe, a fixture in downtown Jackson since 1935.