One of the most enjoyable experiences one can have is driving through a small-town community, stopping at some out-of-the-way restaurant, and discovering a culinary treasure. You know the place, a local non-chain eatery that, at first glance, may cause you to hesitate to go inside, only to be blindsided by the sheer mouth-watering deliciousness of the menu items served by this hidden gem.
They go by different names — Grille, Cafe, Tavern — but they all share something in common —friendly service, homey foods, unknown to tourists, well-known by locals. The atmosphere is usually casual or quaint. With its laid-back ambiance, you walk in with low expectations but leave with a culinary never-to-be-forgotten memory — and your taste buds doing a happy dance.
I am a man on a mission.
I want to identify those out-of-the-way eateries that have developed a local cult following. I want a list of places that will magnetically pull my car into their parking lot whenever I drive through their locale. I want the answer to the question, “Whenever you are driving through this small town, you must stop to eat at _______.”
American restaurateur and television host, Guy Fieri, has been doing the same thing for years on the Food Network’s food reality television series, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Finding these out-of-the-way places focused on small, independent eateries that offer their own version of traditional comfort foods.
Do you have any recommendations?
I have a few.
Driving through Royston, Georgia, a couple of years ago, my wife and I made an impulsive decision. Let’s stop at the Ty Cobb Museum. It proved to be a fascinating way to spend an hour. As we left, the Museum Director asked if we had had lunch yet. He quickly recommended The Old Corner Hardware Store. A hundred years ago, it was a funeral home, where Ty Cobb got his first baseball bat made from leftover casket wood. It later became a hardware store, hence its current name. But today, to call it just a sandwich shop would be blasphemy. I tried their chicken and dumplings and told the owner, “If I weren’t already married, I’d propose.” Yes, it is that good. The desserts are so tasty, I refused to leave without buying two cakes to take home. Located at the corner of Hwy 29 and Hwy 17 in downtown Royston, it is worth a stop — for the food, the owner is already married.
Winder is a small hamlet of a town just a cow chip throw west of Athens, Georgia. It’s the hometown of my parents and also the location of our favorite used bookstore, The Corner Bookstore. One block away is Casey’s at the corner of N. Jackson St. and E. Candler St. The signage and decor wouldn’t suggest anything special. Just a burger joint to the untrained eye and the uninitiated tongue. Recently, after a full morning in the bookstore, my wife and I tried to eat at the taco bar next door, but it was closed on Mondays. The Bistro across the street was also closed. Our third and reluctant choice was Casey’s. She ordered a burger, and Cole slaw. I ordered the smoked chicken salad and fries. One bite, and we were staring at each other. Our eyes spoke, “Is yours as good as mine?” The burger reminded me of a smash-burger, and the homemade cole slaw should win national awards — and I don’t even like Cole slaw. The french fries are plentiful, and the smoked chicken salad had me begging for the recipe. But bring cash. After I placed our order, the hostess told me it was cash only. Having just spent all our cash at the nearby bookstore, I had this shocked look on my face. The hostess smiled, wrote down the amount, gave me a ticket, and said, “That’s ok, just pay me the next time you are in.” WHAT? That’s small-town dining. They accepted Venmo payments, and I immediately made a digital payment. I promised myself to return soon, bring cash, and try their Chicken and Dumpling Soup.
Driving through Greensboro a few years back, my daughter insisted we stop at The Ripe Thing Market. This converted auto shop now sells fresh produce and lunches daily. Their chef is Mr. Ken, a retired chef from Charleston. His job title is Director of Flair. But Monday to Friday, Mr. Ken cooks on a grill out front and serves a daily special. Their fish tacos will have you returning just to see what he serves up next. My wife loves their crystallized honey, a product, she says, that we can only find at The Ripe Thing Market. I think she just wants more fish tacos.
These small-town home-style havens serve their unique delicacies in multiple ways. I call them charming, Southern-style, scrumptious, and soul-satisfying. And I want to know them all.
Do you know any places like these?
Now it’s your turn. Can you tell me where my taste buds must visit next? I only have two criteria.
- It must be located outside a major metro area, preferably a small town community.
- It cannot be a chain restaurant.
Roadside, seaside, backwoods, or a hole-in-the-wall shack — it doesn’t matter. If it’s destination-worthy, let me know. The car’s running. I am ready for a culinary road trip.