Aiken is a city (population 30,000), but for many who live here, it feels like a small town. On Laurens Street — the main street — you often see the same people eating in the same restaurants every day. Among always-popular places where regulars congregate to socialize as well as to eat is What’s Cookin’ Downtown.
A casual cafe, a source of take-home dishes and meals, and a popular caterer, the easy-going town gathering place serves breakfast and lunch, from simple coffee-an’-pastries to sandwiches (hot and cold) and meal-size salads. Much of what’s eaten here is all-American lunchroom fare — from scratch, and good; but those seeking regional cuisine will find what they’re looking for in zesty house-made pimento cheese, biscuits with sausage gravy, and what’s billed as “Gourmet Grits.”
About those grits: gourmet, indeed. They’re the stand-out on a familiar morning menu of eggs every-which-way, pancakes, and French toast. Thick and flavorful, they hum with black pepper punch. A simple bowlful is dandy; it’s also possible to make them into a mighty hearty meal by adding eggs, cheese, ham, bacon, tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, bell pepper, jalapenos, or sautéed onions.
When in the mood for something light at lunch, I go for a sandwich called The Betty, which is a vegetarian bouquet of avocado, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, red onion, and sour cream on rye. Hot sandwiches include hand-pattied burgers available with everything imaginable (including a choice of pimento cheese, Velveeta, Swiss, cheddar and provolone), a chicken-fried steak dressed with chipotle mayonnaise, and a grilled hot dog served in a Yankee-style split-top bun. From the day’s special roster, meat loaf comes crowned with melted Swiss cheese and cranberry relish on grill-crisped marble rye.
Chicken salad is a specialty, available in a sandwich or as the featured attraction in a chef’s salad or on a salad plate with fresh fruits. It’s exemplary: always fresh, enlivened by plenty of sweet small grapes, crisp bits of celery, and a few crunchy pecans.
Note: Breakfast is served from 7 to 10:30 Monday through Friday, and from 7:30 to 11 Saturday. Lunch is available Monday through Wednesday from 10:30 to 3pm and Thursday through Saturday from 10:30 to 5pm.