Mama Lulu’s Diner
Williamsport’s blast from the past satisfies an appetite for cozy, country fare with a side of heartfelt nostalgia.
By April Bartel
Local folks might remember the building at Potomac and Conococheague Streets as “Jeanne’s corner,” a hub for meeting friends and grabbing something yummy for more than 50 years. Jeanne House opened Jeanne’s Confectionery in the historic Hurd building in 1946 and operated the popular eatery until 2000. The space transitioned through several incarnations since then, housing the Williamsport Creamery then the Desert Rose Café and Sweet Shoppe.
Now it is Mama Lulu’s Diner, a brightly-hued 50’s style revival serving homey, country-style fare that incorporates heirloom recipes from the owners’ families while paying homage to the strong, spirited women who inspired the endeavor.
Will Matthews and Don Clatterbuck opened the doors to the 40-seat Mama Lulu’s Diner on October 4, 2022. The pair are exuberant hosts, welcoming customers as if into their home.
“I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant,” says Matthews, “but never thought I would have the chance.” He learned to cook from his grandmother. “She taught me how to make slippery potpie and homemade potato candy, stuff like that. I think that’s where my love for cooking started.”
Eschewing fast food jobs, he opted for a career as a dental surgical assistant instead. He shrugs, “I loved it, but I always cooked on the side.”
Clatterbuck earned his chops with 20+ years in retail management. The pair run several concurrent businesses, including Don’s Designs on a Dime, offering wedding rentals, specialty décor, and cleaning services.
Matthews recalls a pivotal moment about six years ago, “Don was doing a wedding and the couple’s caterer backed out. Don asked me to cater at the last minute.” Matthews whipped up pulled pork, baked macaroni & cheese, homemade coleslaw and smoky baked beans for 150 guests. When attendees asked for his business card, Willy’s Catering was born. He beams, “One wedding led to two weddings and then to three.”
What’s in a Name?
Demand for their catering company was one serving of serendipity, among many others. The pair met Laura Marshall and Rose Harris when Don worked at Hagerstown’s Harry & David outlet. The group became fast friends, sharing a love for creative cookery and hospitality. “Laura was like a second mother,” recalls Matthews. “Everybody called her Mama Lulu and everybody knew her.” She also loved to cook.
Clatterbuck credits Marshall as a mentor, “She taught me so much about business. The biggest thing was to think outside the box.”
They would talk about opening a restaurant together, but it never seemed like the right time. When Harris opened the Desert Rose Café, Marshall would say to her, “You are living my dream.”
Five years ago, Marshall was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, yet continued working as her health declined. “We knew that we would never open that restaurant,” says Matthews, shaking his head.
She passed away in April 2022.
In May, Clatterbuck and Matthews got a call from Harris saying she was selling the café to focus on her other business, providing luggage and shuttles along the C&O Canal, and asking if they would like to take the space for catering. They declined, but quickly changed their minds.
“Laura just passed away,” shares Matthews. “…it felt like she was sending us this opportunity.”
That evening Clatterbuck voiced the thought, “I want to open a restaurant…Mama Lulu’s Diner.”
A scant five months later, the dream is in full swing and every inch of the compact place has a story to tell. There is a picture of Marshall on the menu and smiling out over the dining room, as well as plaques memorializing Jeanne House’s lasting impact on the Williamsport community. Harris’ childhood bike, complete with vintage banana seat, hangs above the jukebox. Tucked on the side of the kitchen, two more pictures bookend the official company name, DEBNDI Enterprise, LLC. That honors Don’s mom and aunt who both passed away due to COVID-19. Even the windows are dressed with family mementos like antique crocks and spice containers.
Mama Lulu’s Diner has a buoyant vibe, full of chrome and color, richly textured brick and pops of art by Rhodes Welding & Metal Works down the street. While freshly updated, its retro style speaks to folks who remember eating steamers and fried chicken at Jeanne’s as kids. Reinstalled seating at the front counter plays on true diner fashion. (Mind the step.)
The menu hits the homestyle favorites, too. Dinner entrees include grilled pork chops, open-faced turkey or roast beef sandwiches with gravy, and their ever-popular liver and onions, plus a load of sandwiches, subs, and wraps. Weekly and daily specials may include slabs of meatloaf or savory stuffed peppers, pork with sauerkraut, slow-simmered dumplings, or popcorn shrimp with fried catfish. Mama Lulu’s even serves steamers, a sandwich piled with ground beef.
“Jeannie was known for her steamers,” says Matthews. “When we started, town hall gave us her recipe.” It’s a peppery mix with tomato soup, but Matthews uses his own version.
When asked his favorite dish, there is no hesitation. It’s slippery pot pie made with beef or ham and dough rolled from scratch. Other restaurants might take shortcuts with the dish, but he insists, “You don’t cheat with biscuits!”
“A lot of the menu is stuff that I grew up eating,” he continues, listing old-school standards like chipped beef gravy, hog maw, and fried pon haus, procured from a local butcher.
For breakfast there’s omelets, egg platters, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, French toast, and more, served until 11 am. Appetizers range from boneless wings and soft pretzels to loaded nachos and cheese sticks. We tried the corn fritters dusted with powdered sugar and were transported to a day at the fair. We’re told they are even better with a drizzle of maple syrup.
Of course, desserts are a big deal. Mama Lulu’s jumbo banana splits and whimsical milkshakes, flavored like popular cereals and made with creamy Hood ice cream, could be a meal in themselves. Matthew’s grandmother gets credit for their tender “Jewish” apple cake spiked with a hint of orange. Clatterbuck’s great-grandmother passed down the banana split dessert, a layered pie with pudding, banana, strawberries, and Cool Whip. If you crave sweets, there’s sure to be a parade of pies, cakes, brownies, and fritters, all available ala mode.
“It’s homemade comfort food,” insists Matthews. “That’s what we are about.”
The duo has big plans for the year ahead, with celebrations for each holiday and special events, such as paint nights. In warmer weather, there will be bistro tables for outdoor dining. They are also considering making boxed meals for events or hosting smaller banquets and parties during off hours. The most exciting news of all, according to Matthews is that of a second location expected to open in the spring.
While Mama Lulu’s Diner is still fairly new to the Williamsport community, Matthews and Clatterbuck feel like they are in the right place at the right time. As Clatterbuck puts it, “The biggest thing in starting this journey is having all the strong women around us, especially those we lost over the years. It’s been a rough time the past year and a half. But we know they are here. They are behind us, helping us along.”