Last week, my son phoned down from Kentucky to tell me something that was probably critically important at the time. He asked what we were doing that weekend and I told him that his sister and I were going to lunch at the Smith House in Dahlonega while Marie drove up to Athens to run over bicyclists at the Twilight Criterium. My son whined – he does that – that he wanted to come, too. I told him he’d better get a move on, then. The call ended disappointingly for each of us; we both wanted him to come to the Smith House with us. I’d never been; he enjoyed a school trip up there in fifth grade. Oddly, my daughter had figured that would be her fifth grade trip as well, but instead she went to Chattanooga to visit Ruby Falls and the Tennessee Aquarium, and they fed her class Cici’s Pizza. That’s budget cuts for you.
Dahlonega was the site of this country’s first gold rush, in 1828, and the town has, sensibly, been cashing in on it ever since. It’s very much a tourist town, with the gold museum located in what used to be the county courthouse in the shop-filled town square, and several vineyards and wineries in the area. It’s easy to reach, just sixty or so miles north of town on Georgia 400. You just take that road until it ends, hang a left and follow the Chestatee River for about six miles.
I invited my friends Matt and Kelley, who live in the nearby town of Gainesville, to join us for lunch. They actually had plans to attend a Ren Fest, for some fool reason I’ve never understood, but since it was going to be pouring rain all weekend, they decided instead to meet me for a nice, dry lunch instead. I’ve known Matt for more than fifteen years; he grew up in Columbus, which is a town packed full of fantastic eating, one that needs a proper, lengthy, six-meals-in-a-day investigation for this venture before the end of the year.
The Smith House is Dahlonega’s principal tourist restaurant, a place whose reputation has become so inflated that you can imagine the staff starting to rest on its laurels, like I hear some of its regional competitors have done. This honestly wasn’t a bad meal, but I’ve certainly had better recently. The restaurant is located on the bottom floor of an old hotel. I’d call it a “grand” hotel, but to me that implies something with hundreds of rooms, and not, say, twenty. It’s certainly impressive, if not gigantic.
At any rate, some Yankee named Hall settled here in the 1890s, and some sample excavation on the property showed there was an untapped gold vein about ten meters below. Lumpkin County, however, would not grant him the permits to mount a major excavation just a block from the courthouse, so he built a great big house on the property, and used that to cover his illicit, illegal mine. Hall sealed his shaft and buried any trace of it before selling the property to the Smith family in the 1920s. They turned it into a hotel, and then sold it to another family twenty years later. The Welches have maintained it for three generations and almost seventy years, but did not uncover the lost mine shaft until renovations on the house just four years ago. They found it under the floorboards in what had been used as a private dining room – a hole, five feet across and thirty-one feet deep, right underneath the likes of Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter’s feet every time they came to lunch or supper. The owners, sensibly, turned the room into a little tourist display, so now everybody can stare down the giant hole and, like my daughter, swear up and down that they see something yellow at the bottom.
Well, we arrived at the Smith House right behind Matt and Kelley, who’d already done a little browsing around the shops of the town square. Diners enter via the gift shop, and pay there before descending the stairs to a long hallway which is said to be packed during the tourist season. A server takes your receipt and seats you at one of several large tables which your party shares with other diners. They take your drink order and then they bring out food. Lots and lots of food. They bring out three meats, baskets of bread and about ten sides in great big family-sized bowls that you pass around to your fellow diners. Sadly, we were seated with a small party that didn’t share a single smile between them, so we didn’t quite get the fun experience that many reviews suggested that we might. Marie can strike up a conversation with just about anybody, but I think even she would have had trouble engaging this batch.
Honestly, April’s probably not the best time to go. The veggies are surely far better during the summer. The creamed corn was quite tasty, but each of the other sides that I sampled was uninspiring, with the squash casserole a notable flop.
However, I’m so taken with the meats that we enjoyed that I was still mostly pleased. The fried chicken was the least of the three, although I have had far worse, but the baked ham and the pot roast were simply terrific. The ham, cured exactly right and not needing a grain of additional salt, would have satisfied me by itself, but the pot roast, falling-apart tender and served in a thick and rich dark brown sauce, was easily the best that I’ve ever had. A summer trip up here, with the vegetables fresh and in season, will certainly be a delight. As it stands, however, the conversation we had about Alfred Hitchcock’s films was just a hair more memorable than the meal. That’s what mediocre sides can do to even the best pot roast around.
After lunch, Matt and Kelley made their way back to Gainesville and my daughter and I explored the town square. There is a very good toy store in the building opposite the Smith House, and an extremely interesting antique book dealer on the square. This is one of those very rare dealers in genuine incunabula. Overstocked library castoffs don’t make their way to this store; hundred year-old Scout manuals, first edition Ayn Rands and disagreeable, eyebrow-raising examples of the Sambos and Golliwogs from old children’s books do. My daughter, sucking a “lasts an hour” lollipop, found more of interest in the chocolate shop next door, but I now know where to call, should Marie and I ever find the wealth and fortune to trade up from all our beat-up Rex Stout paperbacks and begin assembling a set of first editions.
We continued our walk around the square as the rain kept falling and made our way into Connie’s Ice Cream Parlor, a teeny sandwich shop with a gorgeous interior. They keep a little cooler full of uncommon glass-bottled sodas (RC, Nehi, Sun Drop, Cheerwine and so on) and were kind enough to indulge my periodic craving for a “black and white” vanilla ice cream soda with chocolate syrup.
Actually, when I was sketching out the original plans for the previous weekend, they included a trip up to a pharmacy soda fountain that I know up in Dillard, where I intended to enjoy one. Then I changed our plans and we went to Clarkesville instead, and then we watched a 1989 episode of Columbo where the villain-of-the-week mixed up a “black and white” for an old college chum before electrocuting him. Okay, so I probably didn’t need a “black and white” just an hour and a half after finishing a small strawberry shortcake with a scoop of ice cream at the Smith House, but sometimes the world just tells you what it is you’re supposed to eat and drink and if you’ve got any sense, you go along with it.
Other blog posts about the Smith House:
Roadfood.com (Feb. 26 2008)