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Not to mention historic hot dogs, record-setting sweet tea and blues-infused barbecue. Let’s get going!
Hot-Dogging it on the Swamp Rabbit Trail
Chili recipes have a resilience about them. They are survivors. Dunean Elementary School, in the northwest corner of South Carolina, closed long ago. It educated the children of millworkers. But the school’s principal, the late Icy Brannon, managed to save the cafeteria’s hot dog chili recipe, its meat poached, not fried.
In nearby Travelers Rest, another chili recipe has been salvaged. It was served at The American Café, which has been in the same family since 1945. Its patriotic name was a reflection of the times and the sense of national pride that permeated the country during the days of World War II.
Troy “Junior” Styles took over the restaurant from his father in 1963 and ran it until 2009. His chili recipe has been revived and the old restaurant renamed. Now under the ownership of Junior’s niece Vicki Vernon Hawkins, the business has been transformed into The Whistle Stop at the American Café. Junior’s name is still associated with his enduring chili. Order a hot dog there today, and you’ll get the same kind of chili Junior prepared, and on the same kind of hot dog. The mustard and onions are on the bottom and the greaseless chili on top.
“My mother says that hot dogs were not served until Junior came home from the Army in 1953,” Hawkins says. “He was one of the cooks and wanted to put hot dogs on the menu, which my granddad was at first against! Hot dogs became a big part of the history of the café. Rachel Henderson, who had cooked them for 55 years, came and taught us exactly how Junior made his chili.”
The Whistle Stop pays allegiance to the history of Travelers Rest, a storied stop at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains where Conestoga wagons once passed through and where the Swamp Rabbit steam engine stopped for coal. Today, bicyclists traverse the Swamp Rabbit Trail, taking breaks for walk-up drinks and shaved ice at the Caboose Express, on the back side of The Whistle Stop.
Inside, you can sit on the original stools at the original counter, installed at the Williams Café in 1932. It’s a place where customers once loaded their Dr Peppers and Coca-Colas with peanuts. Hawkins says her usual spot was the second stool from the end.
The Whistle Stop is filled with fascinating railroad history. An electric train circles the ceiling. The Swamp Rabbit smoker, a replica of the original steam engine, sits outside.
As further testament to the restaurant’s regional ties, we found Appalachian-style apple and peach fried pies, homemade, in the dessert case. And, yes, with a name like Whistle Stop, there are fried green tomatoes.
Whistle Stop at the American Café, 109 South Main Street, Travelers Rest, South Carolina
Lobster Bisque on Tiger Boulevard
“There was almost nothing on this highway in the early 1970s except kudzu,” says George Corontzes. That’s the time when Bill Hopkins and his wife Pixie opened Pixie & Bill’s in Clemson, South Carolina.
Talk to most anyone around Clemson, and you’ll find out quickly that Pixie & Bill’s is the community’s go-to place for any kind of celebration imaginable.
“This was Clemson’s first fine-dining restaurant and had the only prime rib for miles,” says Corontzes, who waited tables and worked in the kitchen there while he was in graduate school at Clemson University. Corontzes ended up buying the restaurant from the Hopkins estate in 1991, five years after Bill’s death.
In addition to Clemson Tiger orange, Corontzes has restaurant work in his blood. His grandparents – a Lebanese grandmother and Greek grandfather – opened The Capitol Café, a 24-hour diner in front of the South Carolina state capitol in Columbia, in 1911. Corontzes worked there as a young man. The restaurant stayed in the family for 75 years.
The Corontzes family’s respect for tradition is evident throughout the menu at Clemson’s Pixie & Bill’s. Prime rib remains from the early days. So does lobster bisque. And so do dessert crepes. The one we chose was filled with ice cream, decorated with puffs of whipped cream, surrounded by almonds, and doused with amaretto.
Corontzes says it was important to keep those dishes that had attracted a loyal following over the years. I ask him what it’s like in the restaurant on a weekend when the Clemson Tigers are playing football at home.
“That’s what we live for, high energy,” he says. “Football season is huge here, and we’re energized by all the returning alumni.”
Building on the original menu, Corontzes has added some touches of his own—one dish in particular echoing the flavors of his grandfather’s homeland. Here is the menu description of the Grecian Filet Mignon: “A sautéed mixture of mushrooms, bacon, oregano, spring onion, and feta crumbles in a garlic wine butter with a splash of rich beef stock.” Corontzes calls it “a family favorite.”
Often for the nightly special, the kitchen staff will top a cut of prime rib with crab meat and serve it with house-made béarnaise sauce. Corontzes points out that making the au jus for the restaurant’s prime rib is a three-day process, using rib bones.
Diners from out of town frequently ask about Clemson Blue Cheese. It’s used at Pixie & Bill’s in salad dressing, in creamed spinach, and in a compound butter with chives and herbs, served over steaks.
Pixie & Bill’s, 1058 Tiger Boulevard, Clemson, South Carolina