The small town diner is set for a big comeback in Lawrence. The first hint should be the hand-sewn aprons covering the windows at 721 Massachusetts Street. The array of pastel and primary colored-fabric, which will be worn by the servers at Ladybird Diner, hides the construction and makes pedestrians stop to try and figure out what’s happening on this strip of Lawrence’s main drag.
On a recent Tuesday, Meg Heriford stands just inside the door, debating whether a buffalo head should stay on one of the central brick columns in the space that formerly held the Dynamite Saloon portion of Buffalo Bob’s Smokehouse (the other half of the space is being taken over by Bigg’s BBQ). She’s unsure if the oversized shaggy head will go with the diner booths and counter that are being installed before Ladybird opens in July.
Heriford, the restaurant’s owner and operator, has spent the past four months working on her vision of what a classic diner in Lawrence might look like. She’s been a server at 715 since it opened in 2009, but regulars will know her as the pie lady because of her blueberry lavender and gooseberry creations that have regularly sold out on the weekends.
When Buffalo Bob’s announced it would be closing after more than three decades on Mass, 715’s ownership group (chef Michael Beard, Matt Hyde, Matt Cullen and Tom Carmody) approached Heriford about making more than just pies.
“They said, ‘hey, diner girl, how would you like your dream handed to you on a silver platter?’” Heriford says. “They told me to take the food you make, the way you feed your family and your style of service and let’s put your stamp on this street.”
After being presented with the idea, she immediately thought of The Chef Café in Manhattan, Kansas, where she had been a server.
“It’s that third place. It’s a community gathering spot where people will stand and wait for an hour happily with a cup of coffee to be part of the scene. It’s so deeply touching,” Heriford says.
Her connection was so strong that even after she moved from Manhattan to Lawrence, she drove three hours round-trip to work her Sunday shift at The Chef for five years. The Ladybird Diner, however, will stand on its own just like its namesake, former first lady Claudia “Ladybird” Johnson.
“Ladybird Johnson said ‘ugliness is so grim.’ I think that is really in keeping with my philosophy on food and community. I want this space to be bright and lovely,” Heriford says.
Ergo, the quandary over the buffalo head. While the décor is still being settled, Heriford wants the menu to be that of a classic diner, albeit one that pulls in elements from diners across the country.
“I’m married to a musician [singer/songwriter Arthur Dodge] and while on tour, we were always looking for the diner in town,” Heriford says.
As a result of their travels through the Southwest and Midwest, Ladybird will have Cincinnati Chili, cheesy grits casserole (grits baked with cream, cheddar, eggs, salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne pepper), and migas (corn tortillas drenched in ancho chili sauce served with peppers, onions, tomato cotija cheese, beans and grits)
Breakfast will be biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs, hashbrowns (Heriford says “good hashbrowns should be crispy on the outside and almost like a potato pancake on the inside,”) and sweet potato and black bean hash.
“My philosophy on biscuits or any pastry is that small batches are the only way to do it right,” Heriford says. “If we have to make six batches a day, we will.”
Lunch will be soups like split pea and cream of asparagus, cold cheese sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and hamburgers (made with fresh ground from 715) “more like Town Topic.” Tim McGregor, currently at 715, will be coming over to manage the kitchen at Ladybird.
“If you have a bowl of soup, you should feel like you’ve had a meal,” Heriford says. “There are plenty of great half-pound burgers in the city, but I want you to have some room for a piece of pie after your burger.
Dinner will be of the blue plate special variety. Pot pie and fried chicken will be joined by Heriford’s grandmother’s recipe for sticky chicken – carmelized onions that create a ‘sticky’ coating on roast chicken – and pot roast.
“Pot roast is what I make my family when we celebrate or I know someone is going to have a hard day,” Heriford says.
And while she’s confident in her own families recipes, Heriford understands that every diner is competing with that sense of home.
“The bar is kind of high on this stuff. We’re competing with people’s moms and grandmas and beloved aunties,” Heriford says. “This is mama’s table. What you need, we’ll do.”
The Ladybird Diner will be open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“I love with food all the time,” Heriford says. “As long as we maintain that vision, it’s a valiant endeavor. And it’s something worth doing because I really think food matters.”