Blue Willow Inn's history is as juicy as the food

When I was a kid, my aunt ran a boardinghouse beside the railroad tracks in the minuscule South Georgia town of Climax.

Every day at lunch, Aunt Margie would load the dining room table with fried chicken, Southern vegetables and corn sticks. While some guests lined up out back to get boxed lunches to go, most folks ate family style, leisurely slurping sweet tea and finishing with a slice of lemon-meringue or pecan pie.

The Blue Willow Inn in Social Circle, about 45 miles east of Atlanta, offers an experience that is far grander in scale, though quite similar in spirit to those boardinghouse days of yore.

Founded in 1991 by Billie Van Dyke and her late husband, Louis, the restaurant in a massive yellow-brick mansion has become a mecca for visitors in search of old-style Southern hospitality. The Van Dykes were dishing it out Paula Deen-style before Paula Deen was cool.

“We never open the door without sweet potatoes, fried chicken, green beans, macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler — and, of course, fried green tomatoes,” said Billie Van Dyke, the 76-year-old matriarch who started as a caterer and ran a series of smaller food businesses in the area before moving into the stately 1917 home on Social Circle’s main drag.

No doubt many present-day diners filling plates with chicken-pot pie and roast beef haven’t a clue about the place’s storied past and near demise. Juicy as a slab of prime rib, it’s a 24-year saga of ambition, good timing and epic success; followed by grandiose development, poor timing and bankruptcy.

Named after a favorite china pattern, the Blue Willow opened the same year Hollywood released the sweetly nostalgic “Fried Green Tomatoes,” based on a novel by Alabama’s Fannie Flagg. In March 1992, Atlanta Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard rhapsodized about its home cooking in a nationally syndicated piece that proved to be a game-changer.

“He made us,” Van Dyke told me more than once in a telephone interview, during which she waxed episodically about the highs and lows of the iconic Walton County dining room.

For a time there, the Van Dykes could do no wrong. During the 1996 Olympics, the Blue Willow — with its chandeliers and burgundy and blue wall paper — was a star attraction for international visitors. Over the years, it scooped up mentions in USA Today and Southern Living. Food Network named it one of America’s top five “bodacious buffets.”

“If we go to heaven when we die, we expect meals up there to be served at a celestial branch of the Blue Willow Inn,” food-and-travel writers Jane and Michael Stern raved in the opening pages of “The Blue Willow Inn Bible of Southern Cooking,” a cookbook the Van Dykes published in 2005. “These are meals that define Southern eating at its best, from hot biscuits to fried green tomatoes to tables crowded with desserts.”

But the economy nearly sabotaged the Van Dykes’ dream.

In 2008, they opened Blue Willow Village — retail shops, a ’50s-style diner, even a natural-history museum — behind the big house. By 2010, they were in bankruptcy. Louis Van Dyke died that same year. Billie Van Dyke eventually sold the Village and restaurant property to pay off the debt, and today operates the Blue Willow and adjacent gift shop as a tenant.

Over the years, I have enjoyed a couple of delightful, belly-stuffing sessions grazing off the Blue Willow’s Olympic-size destination buffets. And, though I’m sorry to say that a recent meal didn’t measure up to those memories, I remain enchanted by the Southern Gothic vibe of the place. Where else can you fetch a cup of lemonade from an urn by the front door and spend a few blissful minutes in rocking chairs on a veranda lined with soaring Corinthian columns?

For some, the Blue Willow is an opulent fantasy of moonlight and magnolias. (On special occasions like Easter, you’ll even find young belles in hoop skirts.) For me, it evokes the church potlucks and country cooking I grew up with.

Originally from Savannah, Billie Van Dyke was one of five children. “My dad taught us how to crab and shrimp and gig for flounder,” she said. “My mother was an excellent cook. In fact, she won her and dad’s bedroom suite by her coconut pie. … She could turn a feast out of a cabbage and a couple of onions, and we were happy.”

Billie met Louis Van Dyke, her second husband, as a young widow with three children. They journeyed from Savannah to Stone Mountain and eventually settled in Social Circle, where she opened her first restaurant, Billie’s Classic Country Dining, in 1986. “We outgrew that little place in about a year,” she said.

Around that time, she remembers falling in love with the old Bertha Upshaw home on North Cherokee Road (now the Blue Willow). It had stood empty for years.

“My son and I would go pick pecans up out of the yard for our Christmas baking,” she said. “I used to just imagine myself in that big home.”

Apparently, a lot of people still do.

On my Friday night visit, I loaded a plate with fried chicken, black-eyed peas, collards, macaroni and cheese, fried green tomatoes and green beans. The famous chicken and fried green tomatoes were good, but hardly exceptional. I had better luck with the peel-and-eat shrimp from the salad bar. My guest liked the prime rib.

Passing on the soggy-looking catfish, I fixed a comparatively dainty plate of fried shrimp, cheese grits, a twice-baked potato and greasy hush puppies. Looking down at my selection, I murmured aloud: “I can’t believe I’m eating this.”

That was a lie. In fact, my inner child was feeling gleeful and giddy, especially after a couple of Arnold Palmers and a slice of coconut cake.

Not exactly Aunt Margie’s, but I’ll take it.

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