by Ray Linville
If you want a lot of great home-cooking, your best bet is the all-you-can eat Southern buffet at Fuller’s in Pembroke.
Although Fuller’s is open daily, the Sunday crowd seems like family and makes the restaurant lively. On that day more tables are taken by family groups than on other days.
Tonya Rouben, who grew up in Pembroke, was having lunch with 11 family members who still live in the area. Now living in Atlanta, Rouben says, “I wish I had a place with home-cooking like this where I live. I love the barbecue and fried chicken.
“A lot of Lumbees are in the kitchen cooking. It’s hard to beat Native American cooking,” she adds.
At a table for eight, LaVica Farmer of Fayetteville was eating with her sisters in faith, including one who is 93. All are members of Bethany Presbyterian in Lumberton that was formed in 1875 and has a historic African-American legacy. Some are descendants of families who established an adjoining academy in 1903 and built the current church building in 1938.
They were with Rev. Helane Church, the pastor at Bethany, and were spending the day praising the Lord, eating Southern food and praising the Lord again. They had just attended the 9 o’clock service in Lumberton conducted by Church before coming to Fuller’s for lunch. Then they were attending an afternoon service, again conducted by Church, at Freedom East Presbyterian in Raeford.
“Not only is the food delicious, but the service and atmosphere are a treat, so warm. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been here. We come here as often as we can,” says Farmer.
Although she did not make one of the iconic collard sandwiches, Farmer says she came close. “I got some fatback, fried cornbread, and ate them with collards,” she adds.
The church ladies appreciate Fuller’s approach to serving fish. “We like ours with the bone in, which is what is on the buffet, but they also made a bowl of boneless just for us. This is a treat,” says Farmer, holding a piece of croaker.
Elder Linda Carter of Lumberton remembers eating at the original location of Fuller’s in that city. It opened in 1986 but was closed permanently after being inundated by eight feet of flood water from Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
About the original location, she says, “I went there a long, long time. The same people who now work here remember your face. They are like family.”
At another table was Lasheena Jones, who was visiting Fuller’s for the first time with nine family members aged 8 to 74, all from Florence, S.C. Although her favorite on the buffet is the turnip greens, her cousin Francenia Cooper says, “The pork sausage is the best.”
You can tell customers who are new by how they hesitate before going to one of the four buffet stations from a repeat customer who makes a beeline for the favorite. Only in the South would more people hover around the station for vegetables than the one for main dishes. Such was the case where 20 vegetables make customers linger and struggle with narrowing the options before filling their plates.
My favorites are anything green — collards, limas, peas, cabbage, turnip greens, okra (fried). With just a third of the plate now open, I had a hard time choosing among rutabagas, mashed potatoes, corn, succotash, mac ‘n’ cheese and nine more. (Yes, mac ‘n’ cheese is a vegetable.)
The second most popular station has main dishes — chopped pork barbecue, chicken (fried, baked and barbecue), fried crab, shrimp and fried fish, sliced roast beef, pork sausage, chicken livers — plus breads such as hushpuppies, biscuits and corn fritters.
Customers are not timid about taking desserts — some have at least three. Chocolate layer cake (four layers), strawberry shortcake and banana pudding seem to be the top choices. Other choices included a fruit cobbler, a vanilla layer cake and self-serve soft ice cream. When the dessert station runs out of space, sometimes more desserts are on the fourth station, which is mostly salad ingredients.
The buffet stations are brightly lighted by clerestory windows, a series of small windows along the top of the building near the roof line. Don’t worry about anything on the buffet being stale or sitting too long. Items are continually taken by customers and quickly replenished by servers, who keep the chicken — an obvious favorite — piled high.
Kristyn Sabara, one of the servers, said that Sunday is the most popular day and a waitlist that day around 1 p.m. is common, although the buffet price of $12.99 on Sunday is $4 more than on weekdays. A menu is also available, but most choose the buffet.
In the heart of downtown Pembroke at 110 E. Third St., Fuller’s opens daily at 11 a.m. This location is one of three operated by Fuller’s. The other two are in Fayetteville. (Call 910-521-4667 for the Pembroke location if you have questions.)
Fuller’s brings to life the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who envisioned how we would “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” People of all colors and heritages — once separated by the power of Jim Crow — mingle as they enjoy favorite foods. The scene could be improved only if everyone were served family-style and sat at one communal table.
Ray Linville writes about local connections to Southern food, history and culture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .