Laurel’s Queen of Gems
By Mary Ann DeSantis | Photography courtesy of Pearl Campbell
Pearls are known as the queen of gems and, fittingly, Pearl’s Diner has become one of Laurel’s most treasured eateries.
The pearl-colored building with large display windows at the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Oak Street in Laurel, Mississippi, is iconic for many reasons. For nearly a century, it was Burton’s Jewelers where high school seniors ordered class rings, young men bought engagement rings, and brides registered for fine china. More recently, the site has become one of the city’s most recognized restaurants, especially since HGTV’s “Home Town” series occasionally films there.
Reigning over this smorgasbord of Southern dishes is Pearl Campbell, a Laurel native who returned home after three decades with a dream to open her own restaurant. After graduating from Bishop College in Dallas, Texas, she taught in Mize, Mississippi, before moving north where she could make more money. She worked in education in Cleveland, Ohio, and even owned a restaurant with her brother in Indianapolis, Indiana. But in 2015, her father talked her into returning to Laurel.
“My dad, who is still alive and 95 now, asked me, ‘Why don’t you think about coming home so we can enjoy each other’s company?’” Campbell says. “After 34 years, I was back home, but I almost started crying… most of my friends had died or moved away.”
A deeply religious woman, Campbell knew she had to find something to do. She was looking not only for a job, but also a ministry of sorts to give her life purpose.
“I prayed, I meditated,” she says. “I love to cook and I love people. God said to me, ‘That could be your ministry. You came to me and I’m going to work it out for you.’”
Laurel was undergoing a transformation and revitalization, thanks to the new HGTV series starring Laurelites Ben and Erin Napier. The timing was right for Campbell to secure investors and the Burton building.
“From day one, I have been so grateful,” she says. “God put the right people in my life to make my dream come true.”
Pearl’s Diner opened in September 2017 with great fanfare. Locals were delighted to see the Burton building come to life again while the onslaught of tourists were glad to have a lunch place that served authentic and fresh Southern food. The lines to get in are long, especially on Saturdays when a local rock band often plays just outside the front door to keep folks entertained while they wait.
“I originally thought about calling the restaurant Sarah Duncan’s after my grandmother because I use her recipes,” Campbell says. “I learned how to cook from her at her store on South 8th Avenue back in the 1950s.”
Those recipes include Pearl’s extremely popular fried chicken and meatloaf, along with an array of Southern side dishes including macaroni and cheese, peas, butterbeans, greens, brown gravy and mashed potatoes. When asked about her “can’t miss” dish, she quickly responds with hamburger steak or roast beef. They aren’t on the menu every day but when they are, they quickly sell out.
“And when I make banana pudding, everybody says it’s to die for,” she says.
During the holidays, a few special recipes will be on her menu.
“I’ll make chicken and dumplings and sweet potato pies. I’ll have Christmas cookies and probably pound cake, too,” Campbell says.
One of the best compliments, she says, came from Billy Burton, former owner of Burton’s Jewelers.
“He told me he’d sold a lot of pearls in here, but he never dreamed that he’d have a Pearl cooking black-eyed peas and cornbread for him in the same space,” Campbell says. “Relationships like that bless my heart.”
It’s not unusual to see “Miss Pearl” as she is known in Laurel — and around the country, thanks to HGTV — moving from table to table chatting with her customers. With a smile that lights up the dining room, she has become something of a celebrity herself. In addition to running Pearl’s Diner, she was featured during the second season of HGTV “Home Town” when the Napiers renovated a home she bought near downtown.
Although it was a great experience, she recently moved.
“Going up and down the stairs [in that house] at my age was hard,” says Campbell, who turned 74 in September. “I probably had 3 million pictures since that episode aired. People would catch me in my robe and want a picture. I didn’t mind, but I’m enjoying my privacy now.”
She’s also enjoying working with family, especially her younger son, Darren, who is her right-hand man at Pearl’s Diner.
“He quit a decent job in Colorado to come help his momma,” she says. “When you raise your kids right, put God first, and treat people the way you want to be treated, things work out.”
Despite the challenges of running a restaurant, Campbell says the HGTV “Home Town” series is a blessing for Laurel and business owners like her.
“I’m hoping and praying the show will stay on at least 10 more years,” she says. “I am living the high point of my life and I’m not through yet.”