Dinner in the Diner, Nothin’ Could be Finer

The Summerton (SC) Diner serves up southern
cooking at antebellum prices

by Kelly Monaghan

I’m one of those people who dream of pulling off the dusty road into Small Town America, driving past the fast-food franchise joints, and finding the perfect diner: the small local establishment with a short order cook who actually knows how to cook and who serves up the kind of unpretentious, soul-satisfying local specialties that grandmom used to make. Usually, I’m disappointed, finding only the kind of lackluster fare that let the franchise giants take over the culinary landscape in the first place. It’s enough to make you believe that the golden age of diners, if it ever existed, faded away with your parents’ youth.

But the diner of my dreams does exist. I know because I found it, quite by accident, a few years back, in Summerton, South Carolina, just a stone’s throw from Interstate 95 (at Exit 108). Since then, Summerton has figured prominently in my planning for my regular trips to Orlando. Driving might take longer, but I can’t hop off a plane in Summerton. And airline food can’t hold a candle to the Sunday Special at the Summerton Diner, for that is the name of this special place.

Here’s what’s on offer on a typical Sunday. Dinner begins with a friendly greeting and a tall glass of iced tea (or a cup of coffee if you prefer), that will be constantly refilled. Then you have your choice of turkey with all the fixin’s (fabulous), Southern fried chicken (terrific), roast beef, or baked ham with pineapple. It is the vegetables, however, that make the Summerton Diner’s specials truly special. You can choose three out of eight and the choice can be devilishly difficult.

The veggie selection varies from day to day and includes things that, unless you’re a Southerner, you may never have heard of, let alone eaten. There are pole beans, collard greens, turnip greens, okra, and dry lima beans. The pole beans served on Sunday are bathed in a bracing “pot likker” redolent with country ham. There is also a squash and carrot casserole that is a transcendent example of 50’s-style home-cooking and the sweet potato souffle, with its chunks of pineapple and pecans, tastes more like a dessert than a vegetable side dish.

Then there’s the bread basket with its homemade biscuits and corn bread muffins. I have seldom tasted their equal. You almost feel you should eat with one hand held over the bread basket, just so the biscuits won’t float away.

You probably won’t save a place for dessert, but you’ll get it anyway, a beautiful rendition of banana pudding in a sensible-sized serving that won’t completely pop your belt. You sink back and sigh and realize that this is one of the best meals you’ve had in a good long time.

Of course, fine dining like this will cost you . . . $6 to be exact. No, that’s not a typo. The Summerton Diner has prices that are just as old-fashioned as the food. And the $6 Sunday Special is their priciest. On other nights of the week the daily special is just $5.50. A few a la carte entrees, like steak and quail or the seafood platter hover around $10, but you’ll do yourself a serious injury before you manage to get your dinner bill over $15.

UPDATE: March, 2008. The prices for the dinner special at the Summerton diner have soared to $6.75!

The daily special menu varies from day to day. Come on Tuesday for chicken pot pie and on Friday for catfish, but don’t come Thursday because the place is closed. If nothing on the day’s special menu appeals, or if you just can’t face a full meal, you can order pork chops a la carte or just have a $3 bacon cheeseburger.

The Summerton Diner has been around since 1950, but its present incarnation dates from 1967, when John and Lois Hughes bought the place from the previous owner and set a new standard for diner food excellence. John Hughes is dead now and Lois, who remarried Rolfe Files, retired in 1987, but the place is still in the family. Lynelle Blackwell, Mrs. Files’ daughter, now oversees daily operations, but Mrs. Files, a vigorous and vivacious 77, still comes in now and then to lend a hand and warm up the room with her smile.

The Diner is cozy, with a short counter, a handful of booths and another handful of tables. At dinner time, it is often full, for reasons that should be obvious. The crowd is small-town friendly and Americans will find it a reminder of a Norman Rockwell America that seems to have vanished. Foreign visitors to our shores will find in the Summerton Diner one of the few extant examples of the “real” America that existed before brands were slapped on everything and courtesy was replaced with the sullen refrain “y’want fries with that?”

Summerton itself is a sleepy little village that harkens back to an earlier age when little happened and when it did it took its own sweet time. It’s the sort of place where the local garden club gives a “Lawn of the Month” award, where a sign outside Coker’s Hardware on Main Street proclaims, “We Give and Redeem Greenbax Stamps,”and where, nailed to the weathered wooden door of Senn’s Mill, you’ll find a hand painted notice informing you that “Starting Jan 1988 Lunch Hrs. Will Be 12.00 – 2.00.”

That’s not to say that Summerton is without its attractions. There’s a nifty little World War II-vintage tank sitting outside the American Legion hall and Main Street boasts what might be called an “antique district” where the savvy urban sophisticate might find a good deal on the kinds of things country folk call junk. There’s even a driving tour, to judge by the numbered signs that you’ll see around town in front of historic buildings. The trick is finding the brochure that explains what’s what. Most folks will settle for a drive-through or, better yet, a short stroll along its quiet back streets.

After a hearty Summerton Diner dinner, you might feel too full to continue your drive and Summerton offers a small selection of budget to ultra-budget lodging. (There’s even a $16-a-night motel!). But don’t look for anything fancier. I asked the hostess at Rowe’s Family Restaurant, another purveyor of local country cooking, if Summerton had a B&B. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said in genuine surprise. “This isn’t the end of the earth, but you can just about see it from here.” Then, after a moment’s thought she added, “We could fix you up with a trailer out back and we open at six.”

If you do stay overnight, you’ll probably want to head back to the Summerton Diner for breakfast. There will be nothing unusual about your breakfast, except that the check will be well under $5 and every element in it will be executed to perfection. Eggs that remind you just how far from “farm fresh” those little white things you find in the local supermarket are. Fabulous country ham. Home-fried potatoes that are perfectly browned little squares of spudliness. And the biscuits. Oh, those biscuits.

The Summerton Diner, “a Summerton tradition since 1967,” is located in Summerton, South Carolina. The restaurant is open 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 6:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. It is closed Thursday. Take Exit 108 from I-95 and drive west, until the road dead ends at US 301-15. Turn right and the diner is on your left about a tenth of a mile. The phone number is 803-485-6835.