So, as we packed, unpacked, and watched Weather Channel updates, I began to reminisce about some of the really fun eateries, joints and dives in places I’m not going back to, others I’ve visited elsewhere, and having regrets about the new ones I won’t be discovering.
For example, one of the disappointments about having to cancel this trip is that we won’t be visiting the Olde House Cafe in Walterboro, South Carolina, about two or three miles off Interstate 95’s exit 57.
This is a place that serves one of the best southern “Meat ‘n Three’s” I’ve experienced. You can order off the menu but we always pay the 10 bucks per person up front and help ourselves to an incredible all-you-can-eat buffet that always includes fried chicken and at least four other meats such as meat loaf, pork chops, ham, and smothered steak as well as brown and white gravies, homemade biscuits and cornbread.
Vegetables and sides range from sweet potatoes and turnip greens to stewed tomatoes with okra, and black-eyed peas, butter beans, cream corn, green beans, mac and cheese, stuffing, and more. Your $10 also gives you access to the salad and dessert bars, that features banana pudding and sweet potato pie. Iced tea is just $1.50, and comes in huge plastic glasses, that are brought to the table by waitresses named Dixie and Jolene, who call their customers “Sugar” and “Honey.”
Old House booths are filled with friendly locals who don’t care who overhears them loudly discussing their messy divorce, their unmarried and pregnant teenage cousin, Darlene, when their truck was repossessed, or what they’re bringing to next Sunday’s church covered-dish social.
This brought to mind other joints I’ve enjoyed over the years.
A favorite is the North Georgia Mountains’ Colonel Oscar Poole’s Pig Hill of Fame in East Elijay, Georgia that the Colonel calls the Taj-Ma-Hog, with a room off to the side called “The Hard-Hog Cafe.” Located on Highway 515 about 70 miles northwest of Atlanta, this is a BBQ joint that features a hillside behind it covered with wooden pig markers memorializing many of the oinkers that sacrificed more than Colin Kaepernick ever did to benefit mankind. The Colonel drives around in his Pig-Moby-il, a converted 1976 Plymouth Volare with a few added pig modifications including a horn that oinks and snorts. The ramshackle building also features a “pig-ette” fence.
The menu here is simple — it’s barbeque seasoned with Colonel Poole’s own BBQ sauce — which can be bought by the quart jar for just $6.49. Despite the emphasis on pigs, the Colonel also serves brisket, and chicken with sides of barbeque beans, coleslaw, potato salad, Brunswick stew, green beans, and mac and cheese.
If you ever visit this north Georgia landmark you’ll probably find Colonel Poole — who received his full-fledged Kentucky Colonel title from the Governor of Kentucky — entertaining customers playing the piano and dressed in a red, white and blue Uncle Sam hat and American flag tie. He serves as the local chairman of the Republican party and has represented it at all convention levels: local, district, state and national.
Another down-home honky-tonk and sometimes eatery I’ve enjoyed for more than 30 years is Mahuffer’s on Florida’s Indian Shores Gulf coast. I don’t care if your mama can bench press Dolly Parton, this is a place she’d probably tell you to avoid — all the more reason not to. Its late owner, John Susor, had been married nine times, was arrested almost as many times for violating local ordinances he claims were just nuisances, and ran for mayor several times, coming within a handful of votes of winning once. He was profiled about 11 years ago in GQ magazine for his string of failed marriages. He says he met his ex-wives “on street corners and at the Elks Club—here, there, and everywhere.”
This non-air conditioned dive, now owned by John’s only child, Lynn Rogacki, and run by her son, Mike, features a ceiling papered with signed dollar bills, and lingerie that female customers voluntarily shed and offered as decoration on the spot, as well as the ashes of one of John’s friends hanging in a pill bottle from one of the rafters. It also boasts a jukebox jammed with songs sung by groups like the Trashy White Band and Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts that you’ll never hear anywhere else other than a raucous, out of control stag party.
John kept local officials busy with his goofy antics, like the time he advertised for a topless bartender and was warned by the Chief of Police, “You can’t do that here!” When the police returned that evening, they were greeted by a topless bartender – John himself, without a shirt!
Susor, who passed away 10 years ago at 88 while still running the dive, is one of my favorite all-time characters and friends. His past includes working as a bookie in Ohio, a U.S. Army soldier fighting the Japanese in the south Pacific during World War II, playing minor league baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system, jockeying small planes and sailboats around the Caribbean, annoying local elected officials, and running his notoriously wacky Florida beach beer joint. He told me that while hitch-hiking from Ohio to Florida for spring training he was picked up by Ty Cobb, who put him up for a couple of days in his north Georgia home. “Mahuffer”, admitted John, is the name given a fictitious Ohio bookie who was never there when a “winner” called to collect. The bar’s motto is: “If you don’t like it here, hit the bricks” while a hand-painted sign in front proclaims: “Mahuffer’s, The Wurst Place On The Beach. Warm Beer. Lousy Food”
The place looks like a massive yard sale gone very wrong with the back and one side filled with what John called “memorabilia.” Items include the sawed off bow of the boat he claims was used in the 1952 film “African Queen”, the grill of a 1970s Cadillac, a snowmobile, a casket, surf boards, a toilet in front of a bamboo screen under a sign saying: “Photo Op Spot,” cages full of parakeets and lizards, life vests, a variety of oars and paddles, fishing and shrimp nets, a sign saying “follow the yellow brick road” and a yellow brick road, rusted motorcycles, a variety of old street signs, faded and beat up ocean buoys, and much more. Cats that ate potato chips prowled the bar (see photo at top of this blog) were common and when customers complained John suggested they “hit the bricks.” The “Mauhaufermobile”, a hand painted car that John had the doors removed from, sits out front ready to escort over-served patrons home. It has seat belts and windshield wipers, items that John said are required by Florida law. Doors, he told me, are not.
It has a kitchen that John kept spotlessly clean. He was a good cook, many times inviting me over for a meal of fresh caught fish and outrageous stories. John was a voracious reader and we swapped many a pocket novel. He lived in a room in back with a window air conditioner, and kept bizarre hours, opening when he felt like getting up and closing when he felt like closing. One morning about 10 a.m. while sitting at the bar, drinking coffee and playing penny-a-point, quarter-a-hand gin rummy with him, he said to me while dealing the cards: “You have to pay for your next cup of coffee, Bucko.” How come?” I asked. He responded saying: “Because I just opened.”
He also offered food when he felt like it. Customers coming in and asking for menus were handed a stack of them from other restaurants up and down the beach. When they asked him if HE served food, he’d list three or four items if he felt like preparing them or would just say “no.” A young couple and their loud-mouthed 10 or 11-year-old daughter wandered in off the beach one afternoon while I was enjoying a cold beer with John. The young girl loudly and disrespectfully demanded a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. John disappeared into the back and came out with a sandwich and a bag of chips on a paper plate. After the first bite the kid protested yelling: “Hey, this is bologna and cheese!” “No it isn’t, it’s peanut butter and jelly,” John barked back. “Eat it or hit the bricks.” She ate it. Her parents remained silent, drank their beers, paid, and nobody complained. I miss John.
When I lived in Austin in the early 1980s I’d frequent the downtown Texas Chili Parlor, a place that would snip your tie in half if you walked in with one. They had a sign out front warning they’d do it and they did. This place served ice cold longnecks and a wide variety of chili, one so spicy that you had to sign a waiver before they’d slide it in front of you.
For reasons that were never explained to me the guys that ran it years ago hated the town’s University of Texas and discouraged its students and faculty from frequenting their joint, refusing to televise Longhorn football games and telling students that anyone wearing UT apparel would not be allowed inside. It was rumored that they once turned President George W. Bush’s twin daughters away at the door because they were wearing UT paraphernalia. I can’t verify that’s still the case now. The place was always jammed. I liked it.
We have a few places hereabouts that have earned reputations as fun, kooky and kitschy including Chowder Ted’s off Heckscher Drive’s Brown’s Creek Bridge that boasts a cantankerous owner, who serves chowder in sauce pans. But I hear that Ted sold it recently so don’t know what’s happening there now.
Another is the barely year-old PJD’s Beer &Wine Garden at 12 South 2nd Street operated by eccentric pajama-clad boat Captain Dave Voorhees and his pretty blonde fiancé Zan Maddox. This has quickly become a wildly popular neighborhood bar and one of the most Cheers-like joints I’ve ever frequented, due to the eccentric Pajamadave’s harmless and silly antics and the fact it sports some 150 different beers selected by Ms. Maddox. The place doesn’t serve food, but regulars are constantly feeding each other with an endless buffet of snacks and main course items ranging from barbeque brisket and pork to chili, chicken wings, cookies and casseroles. If you’re new in town and want to meet some fun and nice people for a beer or glass of wine and pot luck this is the place to go. Bring a sense of humor and a snack.
T-Rays Burger Station, run by T-Ray Mullis and his family on South 8th Street and the corner of Beech, is kitschy enough to make the list and it serves great southern comfort food in an old gas station at more than reasonable prices. Beer is also available. But it closes after lunch and on Sundays. A few years ago it was declared to have the best hamburger in the entire state of Florida by the USA TODAY newspaper and more recently tied with Joe’s 2nd Street Bistro by this blog’s Fat Men From Space food critics for serving the best burger on the island. If you go try to sit at one of the stools at the counter so you can chat with a member of the friendly Mullis family working the grill and cash register or strike up a conversation with the person next to you. I’ve talked to shrimp boat captains, politicians, Wall Street executives, the inventor of a hot dog manufacturing machine, liberals, conservatives, politicians, football and baseball players, and others while enjoying a variety of dishes including fried chicken, meat loaf, blackened fish, fried shrimp, chicken and dumplings, and more.
Over the years I’ve discovered that dive joints are far more fun and interesting than some fancy fu-fu restaurant that has earned a prestigious five-booger ranking from Michelin, a company that manufactures and sells tires. What’s up with that?
Useful Restaurant Tips: When my more gastronomically cautious Texan wife, Linda, isn’t with me my dining companions tend to be folks with names like Eugene Lamar, Tuffy or Cooter and an occasional Joe or Jeff. While dining out with my pals we’ve developed some very critical do’s and don’ts and common sense rules that can make a dining experience enjoyable. Here are our top 10:
- Never order chili in a restaurant that has photos of common household pets on the menu or the walls. And never, ever order chili in a Middle Eastern, European, African, Asian, South American or Californian restaurant.
- Never send back food in a restaurant where the cook is wearing a sidearm.
- If you decide to eat in a French restaurant the first thing to say to your server when seated is: “A plume de ma tante est sur le bureau.” This will let him or her know you’re nobody’s fool and have a fluent command of the French language. It’s best to do this while pinching your nostrils together with your thumb and forefinger so you sound like a native speaker. Try it.
- After glancing through the menu at a French restaurant quickly tell your server “Garcon! Approtrez-moi mucho francaise chow toot sweet.” (“Bring me some French food right now”).
- Never, ever order escargots in a French restaurant as they’ll bring you a plate full of snails.
- Never eat in a French restaurant.
- If the restaurant advertises Brunswick Stew check to make sure it’s being cooked in a big black pot over a fire in the yard behind the kitchen, stirred with a boat oar, and doesn’t include English peas.
- Never order barbeque or chili in a restaurant that serves kale, tofu or quiche.
- Unlike Oriental restaurants, where you order by numbers listed on the menu, in a Mexican restaurant you order by colors, simply telling your servers you want some orange stuff, green stuff, brown stuff, and white stuff with a side bowl of red stuff and a basket of crispy brown things. No matter what Mexican restaurant you go to or where, it all tastes the same and they all use the same color code.
- Never eat a hamburger that someone in the kitchen has put mushrooms, avocadoes, bacon, bean sprouts, or kale on. Cheese, sliced raw onions and tomatoes are fine. So is lettuce if you don’t care that it doesn’t have any taste and when you take a bite it makes your burger slide out of the bun.
Oh Say, Did You See? Vic Deacon, lead guitarist for one of Amelia Island’s most popular bands, the Honey Badgers, played our national anthem last Sunday that left Sandbar and Kitchen customers, employees and Main Beach tourists within hearing distance with lumps in their throats and a few tears in their eyes including me. At 12:55, just prior to the kickoff of the season’s first NFL football game, Vic broke into a stunning rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that had everyone standing up and placing their hands and hats over their hearts. Since the cowardly ESPN Sports Network refuses to broadcast our country’s anthem, it’s been left up to local patriots to do so, and Vic got the job done. While Vic played on a special stage on the sand facing the Sandbar’s restaurant and bar, I watched as tourists — kids and adults — on the beach wearing bikinis and trunks, stood up in reverence, holding their hands and hats over their hearts along with the crowd at the Sandbar. Hats off to the Sandbar’s Kevin Dooner for setting this up and to the Honey Badgers and Vic Deacon for a stirring performance.
Drinking, Dining & Dancing: You don’t have to be a member of Amelia Island’s American Legion Post 54 to be admitted this Saturday, September 15, because its New York strip steak night, when non-members are invited to enjoy a cooked-to-order steak, salad, baked potato, corn on the cob, and roll for a donation of just $12.00 from 5-7 p.m. And the post has college football on all its many TVs as well as live music later in the evening. If you’re planning on taking a knee during the national anthem, please let me know in advance, as I’d like to watch what happens to you. The Post is located at 626 South 3rd Street in Fernandina Beach. Since there are a bunch of Carolina, Virginia and Maryland folks taking refuge here from Florence, why not invite some of them down to the Legion with you for a steak dinner.