By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1996 Gourmet Magazine
When Louis Van Dyke went to the bank in 1990 to finance The Blue Willow Inn Restaurant, which he hoped to open in Social Circle, Georgia, the loan officer showed him the door. Social Circle, a quiet Walton County town surrounded by horse farms and green, rolling hills, was too remote for a bankable restaurant. But Louis and his wife, Billie, who were operating a successful eatery in the local American Legion hall, were not daunted; they did without the loan and managed to buy a once-grand Greek Revival mansion. Working in their spare time, they renovated it. On Thanksgiving Day of 1991, they opened their dream restaurant.
Since then, The Blue Willow Inn has become a citadel of classic Southern meals that begin with cool lemonade on the front porch and conclude with chunky hot peach cobbler for dessert. “We knew one thing when we opened,” Mr. Van Dyke explained as we joined him in a round of what he referred to as “the Champagne of the South”—presweetened ice tea. “We were going to have to serve food that people would be willing to drive nearly an hour to eat. We would have to be that good, or The Blue Willow Inn didn’t have a chance.”
The Blue Willow Inn is that good. Atlantans think nothing of driving forty-five minutes to dine in Social Circle. Augustans drive two hours, and on weekends families travel from Tennessee and the Carolinas to make a day of the sumptuous event. Visitors from 153 different foreign countries have signed the guest book. Some customers, celebrating special occasions, arrive wearing silk gowns or dinner jackets; others come in shorts, with flip flops on their feet; on weekdays local workmen eat lunch in their overalls. Harley Davidson clubs have dined here, outfitted in leather and denim, as have garden clubs of ladies wearing pastel pantsuits and white patent-leather shoes. Somehow, there is nothing odd about such a vast range of people thinking of The Blue Willow Inn as their kind of place. Everyone is welcome, with only a few exceptions. Once, when a young man arrived with a four-letter word on his T-shirt, he was asked to leave. And Billie Van Dyke, only half-kidding, says, “When people come in looking for low-fat food, we tell them to go eat at the hospital.”
At The Blue Willow Inn, you do not come to worry about what you eat; you come to enjoy it. Pay one price, ranging from $8.95 on a weekday at lunch to $14.95 on Friday nights, and eat from the buffet until you are satisfied. “We have two rules here,” the waitress warns us at the beginning of a meal after asking if we prefer our tea sweetened or unsweetened, then pointing us toward the food. “Rule one is that no one goes home hungry. Rule two is that everybody has to have at least two desserts.” In this happy restaurant, spoilsport nutrition wardens have no jurisdiction.
The heart of the Inn is the buffet room. Here you find a salad table, a soup table, a long U-shaped table with pans of steaming meats and vegetables, and a large dessert table in the center of it all. It is a ravishing sight, but we caution you now: No matter how big an appetite you are packing when you arrive, it is practically impossible to sample everything that tempts you. With a minimum of four different meats and more than a dozen vegetables on display, not to mention the chicken and dumpling soup and the biscuits and cornbread and relishes and salads and umpteen pies, puddings, cakes, cookies, brownies, and cobblers, you either aim for a tiny bite of everything you like or you make hard choices: Pass up the opulent macaroni and cheese in favor of a nice-sized portion of skillet squash; ignore the corn bread dressing so you have room on the plate for sweet-corn casserole. If you indulge in a feast of baked and smothered pork chops, then you likely won’t be able to appreciate the kitchen’s magnificent “streak-o-lean”— thick strips of bacony pork that vary in texture from wickedly crusty to melt-away lush, blanketed with smooth white gravy. For those of us who travel far to eat at The Blue Willow Inn and can come only rarely, these decisions can be agonizing.
It is fascinating to observe customers’ strategies in this regard. One woman heads toward her table carrying a plate with nothing but various vegetable casseroles and souffles; another has focused even more precisely, choosing three kinds of beans. One man sidesteps vegetables altogether and walks away from the buffet balancing a plate that teeters with fried chicken, slabs of meat loaf, and a mountain of smothered steak. A white-haired couple dressed in matching running shoes and lavender windbreakers zero in on the serving tray of fried green tomatoes and pile two plates high with the golden disks and a few dabs of chutney, grinning ear to ear as they tote their treasures back to a table.
The help-yourself procedure is the same at all meals, but the choice is bigger and more deluxe in the evening and at Sunday’s midday dinner. On Friday and Saturday nights, the seafood buffet adds shrimp, stuffed crab, fried whole catfish, and sliced-to-order baked salmon to the mix; other offerings on those nights include a choice of some sort of fancy beef, such as top round, as well as baby back ribs glazed with Louis Van Dyke’s special sauce, a zesty red veneer of which he will reveal only one of the secret ingredients: Coca-Cola.
Certain basic dishes are present at every meal. Fried chicken is a staple. Mr. Van Dyke, a man whose expansive physique betrays an unbridled passion for food, admits that he is a fried-chicken fanatic. “I order it everywhere I go, even in a Chinese restaurant,” he says. “So I was fussy when I developed the recipe we serve here.” It is grand and true Southern fried chicken, nearly greaseless but with a well-spiced crust that has a luscious texture, shattering at first bite and infusing the meat inside with flavor.
Of course mashed potatoes are almost always on the menu, and they are as good as mashed potatoes can be. One day at lunch we looked into the kitchen and saw head cook Ann Lowe mashing a tub of them by hand with a heavy whisk. It is hard work to plow through so big a batch of potatoes, but the results are such that cannot be achieved with a machine: dense, buttery swells of ivory-hued spud—a significant presence on a plate.
Another dish that requires plenty of hand labor is collard greens. Before being cooked with ham hocks and fatback, the greens must be washed and rewashed several times. Because they cook down and lose volume as they absorb the porky flavors in their boiling water, vast amounts of raw ones need to be cleaned to meet the daily demand. Mr. Van Dyke, a self-taught cook, recalls the time he thought he figured out a way to automate the process. He put an armload of collard greens in his washing machine. “All I can tell you is this,” he says. “Never use the spin cycle. The greens came out clean, but we had bits of them on our clothes for weeks.” Now Blue Willow collards are hand-washed the old-fashioned way before they are cooked until wilted but still firm enough to provide a bit of tooth resistance. Chopped into leafy little pieces about the size of postage stamps, they have an enticing, not-quite-bitter savor. As one customer, apparently a stranger to Dixie cooking, considers them in their serving pan, Mr. Van Dyke looks over her shoulder at the glistening leaves and advises, “You must try collards. You’ll either love them or you will hate them, and if you decide you love them you will just have to stay with us in the South.”
The signature dish of the Inn is fried green tomatoes, which are always offered with bright red tomato chutney in a nearby bowl. The tomatoes are served year-round, shipped in from wherever they are currently green, sometimes Mexico and California. They are then sliced by hand. The slices are battered and fried in hot oil, resulting in crunchy disks with juicy insides just tart enough to balance the richness of the crust. The chutney is sweet, pickly stuff, the tomatoes’ ideal companion, and also mighty tasty when spooned onto green beans, pole beans, shoepeg corn, or collards.
The Van Dykes are especially fond of fried green tomatoes because it was this dish that put them on the map. A few months after opening, they were still struggling to make ends meet when Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard came to dine, sampled the fried green tomatoes, and wrote a newspaper column about them and some other things he liked, including the mashed potatoes. “If I gave ratings for Southern cooking,” Grizzard rhapsodized, “I’d have to give The Blue Willow Inn my absolute highest mark—five bowls of turnip greens.” Mr. Van Dyke remembers that the weekend after Grizzard’s syndicated column appeared was the first weekend the restaurant showed a profit. Sometime later, when the mansion’s sun porch was turned into an additional dining room, the new area was named the Lewis Grizzard Room, and now several of his books are on display there.
There are many good buffet-style restaurants in the South specializing in big, down-home meals; however, The Blue Willow Inn is a cut above. What it serves is familiar—not hoity-toity or clever—and in each case it is the finest imaginable version of the dish. The sweet-potato soufflé, for example, is prepared with an irresistible crust made from cornflakes, butter, brown sugar, and chopped pecans or walnuts. Likewise, butter peas look like traditional butter beans but are smaller and considerably more fragile, and instead of minuscule scraps of ham for flavor, the dish contains large, lovely pink slices. (Be sure to have some of the pineapple casserole to complement this!) Even the simplest dishes are superior. Chicken and dumplings, served as a soup but as thick as stew, is supremely comforting—alabaster white, soft, smooth, and aromatic. Some people like to customize it with extra pepper and butter, but we believe this creamy bowl of food is lavish enough without the butter; and, although a smidgen of pepper is a nice foil to its blandness, too much can undo its fundamental gentility. This chicken and dumplings is a dish for grown-ups who still crave the simple pleasures of nursery food.
Mr. Van Dyke is pleased to say that some of the recipes used at The Blue Willow Inn are borrowed from Mrs. Sema Wilkes, who has operated her legendary boarding house in Savannah since the 1940s. The zesty meatloaf is hers, as are the biscuits. “I don’t believe there is a better biscuit recipe anywhere,” he says. They are indeed a beautiful bread-stuff: airy, tan-crusted domes with fluffy insides and a compelling, fresh-from-the-oven aroma. Their tops are knobbly because the dough is patted out rather than rolled. Rolling the dough toughens the biscuit, Mr. Van Dyke explains.
Distinguished Southern food is what motivates customers to travel long distances to feast at The Blue Willow Inn, but the experience of driving through the Georgia countryside is a joy in itself, especially in the spring, when the dogwoods, wisteria, and cherry trees are in bloom. The old place that the Van Dykes bought and renovated was built in 1917, when cotton was king and Social Circle was home to many prominent families who grew it. A cream-colored brick neoclassical house with a wide portico supported by four Corinthian columns, it was designed to mirror the mansion across the street, but to be just a little bigger and better in every way. Today’s interior still sports paneled mahogany doors and grand fireplaces in nearly every room; mantels are festooned with elaborate greenery, and walls are bedecked with blue willow china plates, the house emblem. When you arrive, you might be met on the front porch by Susie Hall, in her Sunday best, whose job is to greet people on busy days. “Good to have you here,” she says, beaming with hospitality. You then find a rocking chair on the porch and sip lemonade while waiting for your turn at the buffet inside.