When I was a kid, before I knew better, I always ate cheeseburgers at barbecue restaurants. My parents frequently went with friends to one of two places in Smyrna, Old South Bar-B-Q on what’s now Windy Hill Road, but what Neal reminds me was then called Cherokee Street, and the Old Hickory House that, if I remember correctly, used to be on 41 near I-285. It was one of those restaurants across the street from the Steak & Shake and the Lexus dealership – which itself used to be a Service Merchandise – and I think that my parents started having occasional Friday night suppers there after the Red Sirloin closed. You probably don’t remember Red Sirloin. We ate there almost every Friday at 6 pm for years, and I agonized every single sortie for two of those years that we were going to miss Wonder Woman on CBS at 8.
But I’m not talking about Red Sirloin, I’m talking about Old Hickory House. In the late 70s and early 80s, this was something close to an Atlanta tradition. I believe that there were at least ten of these dotted around the suburbs, and they regularly advertised on TV and radio. Everybody who grew up here remembers their old jingle, “Put some south in your mouth, at Old Hickory House…”
The chain of restaurants even had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the national spotlight. The scene in Smokey & the Bandit where Burt Reynolds first gets the better of Jackie Gleason while he’s waiting impatiently for a “Diablo sandwich and a Dr. Pepper” was filmed at an Old Hickory House in Forest Park. I believe that Bandit hides his Trans Am behind the restaurant’s sign shortly afterward. That location is long gone, as are most of the others. For the longest time, only three remained. One of those was in the lobby of a Days Inn just off Roswell Road in Sandy Springs, but it was replaced by a Chinese restaurant in the late 90s. The last two holdouts of this old tradition are in Dunwoody and Tucker.
This past Saturday, Marie and I went out to the Old Hickory House with our daughter and with David, who’s dieting and had to think long and hard about imbibing too much in the way of sweet barbecue sauce and ruining his blood sugar. What we found feels very much like a restaurant that is still serving up some pretty good food, but also on its last legs. The restaurant looks a lot like like it was built in the 1970s and hasn’t changed or been renovated at all in close to forty years; it’s just aged and seems dim. Dim and grim.
It was very quiet and slow on this Saturday evening. Not many customers were dining, and we were the youngest. Considering how I spent the first three paragraphs of this chapter reminiscing about the good ole days, that might tell you something. One week previously, we had been at Zeb Dean’s in Danielsville for Saturday night supper, where there were only a few seats free and the joint sparked with electricity and loud conversation. Here, most of what joie de vivre there was came from our server, an agreeable fellow named Junior, who made us feel very much at home.
It just didn’t feel much like a home where we wanted to stay for long. The food was not bad, although the sauce was far too sweet and mild for my liking, and the fries, which were just terrific, really reminded me of my misspent youth, foolishly eating cheeseburgers when I could have been trying barbecue, except that “it looked weird” or some other childlike excuse for not eating what you came to a restaurant to eat. The Brunswick stew here is quite good. One neat standout on the restaurant’s menu is their dressed dog, where they smother a dog with Brunswick stew. I haven’t had one of those in a really long time.
The experience somewhat reminded me of what we felt after lunch at the Mad Italian a couple of months ago; the memories of a restaurant’s glory days were more pleasing than the meal itself. Maybe the next time we ask David to join us for something to eat, we should make sure it’s a restaurant too new to be compared to its more interesting past.
Other blog posts about Old Hickory House: