The History of The Dinner Bell
The round table tradition began over 80 years ago in Mendenhall, Mississippi and was fostered by boarding houses which implemented the Lazy Susan tables to expedite serving large numbers of people. Soon similar independently owned operations opened in Columbia, Mississippi and then McComb. Though The Dinner Bell was never a boarding house, it was so close to the railroad and bus station, many travelers would stop and eat lunch – and still, do.
The Dinner Bell’s first owners, the Jack Corbetts, had the original eighteen-seat table fashioned by Loubat Restaurant Supply in New Orleans, Louisiana and assembled in the room. Their modest beginning in a white frame building, across the street on Louisiana Avenue near Third Street, was an immediate success and more than the “hobby” they bargained for. Eventually, their employee, Mrs. Grace Whittington, bought the business and moved it to its present location in 1959. There, several more tables were added to accommodate the crowd – one identical to the first and two smaller, seating twelve to fourteen each, similar to those found in other round table restaurants.
The building, originally a home, was built between 1921 and 1923 by John White, owner of the first McComb Laundry and member of the prestigious White family, that included Hugh White, twice Governor of Mississippi.
The Dinner Bell was the last of several homes built by the Whites in the area and is the only one of brick. One of the White brothers made his fortune in the lumber business and supplied only the best of materials for the home’s interior.
The downstairs features molded ceilings, board and bat ceilings, ceramic tile flooring, birch trims, and beautiful Belgian face curtains. The White’s must have wanted a house with a view, for the downstairs has 852 windowpanes; with the upstairs, the total reaches 1451.
Brief hiatus and reopening
Mrs. Whittington honed the idea and introduced the famous fried eggplant to the more than grateful customers. As with the previous owner, continued successes found the newly married Mrs. Whittington-Wales facing more than she imagined. She sold it to David Forrest who operated it for over twenty years as The Dinner Bell Club, Inc. To the horror of its fans, The Dinner Bell closed in 1978 due to Mr. Forrest’s failing health. It was a chance encounter two years later that saved it from extinction.
In early 1980 while visiting family in McComb, John Lopinto and his family decided to check up on an ad he had seen in a New Orleans newspaper announcing The Dinner Bell for sale. It still was and was days from becoming a beauty and dress shop. John and his wife Carolyn took their retirement to reopen the restaurant. Extensive renovation followed. On February 17, 1981, Mrs. Whittington-Wales cut the ribbon with Mr. Forrest and a host of dignitaries in attendance to what would begin the truly amazing journey for the Lopintos.
Serving old and new
After Twenty five wonderful years, the Lapintos retired in 2003. To their delight, Buddy Davis, longtime manager of the local Jitney-Jungle grocery store, took the helm promising to continue the tradition. After more than thirty years of selling eggplant to both Mr. Forrest and Mr. Lopinto, Buddy was now serving the same eggplant he used to sell. Buddy was joined in this venture by his son, Andre’, who along with his wife Ashley agreed to move back home to McComb from Atlanta to make sure The Dinner Bell was to remain in good hands upon his own retirement. With the addition of their two daughters, Lorelai and Isabella, the Dinner Bell looks to remain in the family for another generation.
Continuing the tradition
Of course, food is the focal point. The menu has remained very similar throughout the restaurant’s history. Over the years, many items have become staples. Though most insist the fried eggplant is their favorite, still others rave over the fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, and sweet potato casserole, which are regular fixtures of the table. Compliment that with ever-changing fresh seasonal vegetables and additional entrees and desserts, not to mention the sweet, sweet tea and even the table begins to groan. All eyes look towards Sunday when the usual menu is enhanced by many additional items including an array of desserts to truly make you feel like you’re at Grandma’s house.
Along with the food, it’s a personal experience that makes the Dinner Bell unique. The day begins around 7 AM, earlier on holidays, preparing all the day’s fixings by hand and the cooks have been with the restaurant literally most of their lives. The two original cooks, Alise Crossley, and Corlene Washington, both now deceased, worked here well into their eighties handing down recipes and training the next generation.
Wonderful legacy of southern cooking
McComb is Pike County’s largest municipality, population 13,500. It is a natural hub where I-55, Highway 51, 98, and 24 meet linking Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Jackson, Hattiesburg, and Natchez as well as dozens of other picturesque communities. Visitors can find a number of festivals, outlets, and amazing golfing here along with great retirement opportunities and a magnificent state park. Nestled downtown within the Depot District, The Dinner Bell has carved out an amazing guestbook. It includes the famous and infamous, friends and neighbors and literally generations of patrons who came as children, returned as adults and brought their children and grandchildren.
Furthermore, “if you build it, they will come” takes on added meaning as the pages have representation from every US state, Canada, and Mexico as well as most every continent on the globe.