The story below is an excerpt from our Jan./Feb. 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
The dining rooms in upstate South Carolina offer wonderful flavor in equally delightful contexts of family, town and regional heritage.
A Chicken Salad Stop on the Swamp Rabbit Trail
Talk to Joyce and Nancy McCarrell for very long and you’ll be convinced that Travelers Rest, South Carolina, is the center of the universe. These enterprising sisters run The Café at Williams Hardware on South Main Street in their hometown.
When they heard about plans to turn an old railroad corridor into a biking, hiking and running trail, they purchased the hardware store building and started collecting recipes.
“The store opened in 1933,” says Joyce. “It sold chains, plowing equipment, paint—anything you needed. And you could pay your power bill and your phone bill there.”
It was a community gathering place, and so is the bustling restaurant that occupies the space today.
Thinking that people who traversed what became the Swamp Rabbit Trail would need a place to stop, “rest” in the historic tradition of the town, buy a bottle of water, and get a snack, Joyce and Nancy shelved their other careers in 2008 and became restaurant owners for the first time.
Joyce had practiced law in Travelers Rest for 15 years and ran the Williams-Sonoma store in Greenville for 13. Nancy had worked in medical office management. Their family is rooted in Travelers Rest. Their father, Dr. Landrum McCarrell, was a physician, and Landrum Jr. carries on his father’s work just around the corner from the café.
Now 20 miles long, the Swamp Rabbit Trail is used by about half a million people a year. Bike traffic is constant between Greenville and Travelers Rest. The sisters’ risk-taking has paid off. The café employs some 25 people.
Joyce and Nancy are enthusiastic promoters of this revitalized town. Through their lively blog, they share shopping tips, tourism information, football schedules,and weather reports. At Thanksgiving, they recall the skill of their doctor father in precisely carving a turkey. They always conclude their video segments with a saying often used in the family: “If you can’t see Paris Mountain, you’re too far from home.”
At about 2,000 feet in elevation, the mountain is an Upstate South Carolina landmark and the site of a state park, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
T-shirts imprinted with the Paris Mountain saying are sold in the café’s well-stocked gift shop, alongside a sign proclaiming, “I Love You More Than Biscuits and Gravy.”
The menu at The Café at Williams Hardware is reminiscent of a Southern tea room. For breakfast, Everything Grits consists of cheese grits blended with ham, sausage, onion, and green pepper and topped with an over-easy egg and bacon.
Not content with a standard approach to chicken salad, the sisters serve a pecan-encrusted variant. Their chicken salad is made with apples, almonds and a touch of rosemary, snipped from the bushes out back. They take scoops of that salad, form them into patties, roll them in chopped pecans and put them on a hot griddle to toast the nuts. Among the house-made salad dressings are a jalapeño ranch and a maple vinaigrette.
The McCarrells call their Reuben sandwich “The Best” and say the interplay of bacon grease and sauerkraut may be one of the reasons customers describe it that way.
“One man said it’s the best one he has had since he moved down from New York 14 years ago,” says Joyce.
For dessert, strawberry cake is made in season, and Southern-style coconut cake is on the menu year-round.
The sisters say they wanted a place where people could get together with old friends and make new ones, and in that ambition, they have succeeded beyond what either of them could have predicted when they embraced this new venture.
As Joyce says, “Come in and have a glass of tea and be a friend.”
The Café at Williams Hardware
13 South Main Street
Travelers Rest, South Carolina