A meal at the Mendenhall Hotel is an inspiring reminder of how the word "restaurant" originated: as a place to restore strength and good spirits when far away from home.

The main thing that inscribes the Mendenhall in the Roadfood Hall of Fame is the amount of food it tenders. If you have not personally luxuriated in any of Dixie's classic communal dining rooms, such as Mrs. Wilkes' in Savannah, Ga., or the Hopkins Boarding House in Pensacola, Fla., you can hardly imagine how much there is to eat. A vista of vittles is spread before you: baskets of steaming hot biscuits, cracklin' cornbread, yeast rolls and sweet muffins; a dozen or more vegetables and ultra-customized vegetable casseroles; fried chicken (de rigueur at any good boardinghouse meal), ham, pork chops, barbecued beef and Brunswick stew; and peach cobbler and icy pitchers of pour-it-yourself, presweetened iced tea.Pay one price (under $10) and eat all you want; and when you are done, find a rocking chair on the front porch and snooze a spell. It is not exactly power lunch, and gourmets won't find the latest trendy food on the table; but for those in search of authentic American cooking, there is no restaurant experience that can compare to this grand old hotel in the small town that was once a stop on the rail line between Jackson and Hattiesburg.

It was back in 1915 that Mrs. Annie Heil, owner of what was then called the Heil Hotel, started serving meals to trainmen and travelers who stopped for a quick half-hour lunch on their way north or south. Because they had no time to dally over a menu or a course-by-course meal, Mrs. Heil came up with a system to serve them fast: round-table dining, for which she sat everyone at a big round table with a lazy susan in the center where the whole meal was unfurled and ready for fast eating action. The wheels of good food have been spinning ever since, at the Mendenhall Hotel and at a few other citadels of Dixie cooking in this part of Mississippi.

What fun it is to eat this way! It's practical, too. It cuts down on the reaching, stretching and "pass-it-to-me's" that obstruct ordinary boardinghouse meals. All the platters, bowls, casseroles, breadbaskets, pitchers and condiment jars are within easy reach. When you want something, spin it and grab. Whenever a serving tray on the lazy susan starts looking empty, a member of the staff snatches it back to the kitchen and returns with a full one.

What most visitors remember best about a visit to the Mendenhall Hotel is the array of vegetables - perhaps a dozen different kinds at every meal, ranging from locally grown, garden-fresh tomatoes (yes, we know; technically, tomatoes are a fruit) to whipped yams streaked with marshmallows and scented with vanilla, creamed corn, scalloped oysters, mighty bowls of butter-rich squash, and luscious creamed spinach, our version of which follows.

As for how much it is polite and proper to eat at such a meal, take a hint from the house motto displayed in a pretty needlepoint sampler on the wall of the Mendenhall Hotel dining room: EAT 'TIL IT OUCHES.

Now available! Nearly 200 of the most-requested recipes from this column, all in one book, "A Taste of America." It includes Jane and Michael Stern's favorite restaurants, as well as photos from their coast-to-coast eating adventures. Available in paperback, it can be ordered by sending $9.95 plus $1 for postage and handling to Taste of America, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 419150, Kansas City, MO 64141.1990, Jane and Michael Stern

(Universal Press Syndicate)

Bacony Creamed Spinach

2 10-ounce packages frozen spinach

6 strips bacon

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

pinch cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup light cream, half-and-half or milk Cook spinach by boiling or in microwave. Drain well and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Chop fine, using food processor or food grinder.

Cook bacon in skillet until crisp. Remove and drain. Crumble and reserve. In about 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat, saute garlic and onion over medium heat. When onion is limp, add spinach. Lower heat. Season with salt and peppers; stir well as moisture evaporates from spinach, about 1 minute. Remove from heat.

In a separate large skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Sprinkle in flour, stirring constantly until smooth. Gradually stir in cream or milk and cook until smooth and bubbly. Stir in spinach mixture and heat through. Remove from heat, stir in reserved bits of bacon, and serve.

Serves 4.