I had to track down Randy before I wrote up this chapter and let him know what I was going to say, for fear that he might think that I was making a passive-aggressive swipe at him when I say that Poole’s is probably the most improved restaurant that I have ever visited. They’ve gone from a regional curiosity to something downright amazing.
Last week, Marie and Ivy and I drove up I-575 to the mountain town of Ellijay to buy some apples. There’s a really great place on the right just after you enter Gilmer County called Panorama Orchards, and while you could very well load up with all sorts of jams and jellies and salsas, you can also spend late summer and early fall loading up on fresh apples. Marie got several pecks – Fujis, Mutsus, Arkansas Black – to share and to snack and to bake into pies. That’s a very agreeable way to spend an hour.
A little further north, and technically in the town of East Ellijay, there’s an intersection where, within spitting distance of each other, you used to be able to find a Pizza King, a Burger King, a Waffle King and a Mexican restaurant called El Rey. The Waffle King has gone now – I suspect this old chain might well have left Georgia entirely – but I still think of this place as “King’s Corner.” A zigzag right and a left from there brings you to the Pig Hill of Fame, and one of the state’s silliest and tackiest restaurants. Once upon a time, Colonel Oscar Poole fell afoul of some county sign ordinance or other and responded by turning his property into a glorious eyesore. The building is painted in vibrant, bright colors, and the land behind the restaurant is covered with small, flat, wooden pig signs which customers can buy for a small fee and have their names listed there until weather erodes them away.
Poole himself is quite a trip. I only saw him in person once, briefly, years back, but I can’t think of a restaurateur in the state who’s been photographed as often as him. He’s a little hard to miss. He’s kind of a cross between Grandpa Munster and Uncle Sam. He even drives a car that Grandpa might have found funny.
If you read between the lines of earlier chapters, you might have picked up that I don’t care for having politics inserted into my meals when I go out. You might have also have detected that the politics to which I object would be the Republican variety. But really, what makes a place unfriendly isn’t a discussion of ideas, it’s that grim, quiet, paranoia that unhappy people spend time seething about. It’s when loudmouths start parroting whatever hate radio talking point passes for discourse, and loudmouths have been doing this long before anybody heard of Barack Obama. I’ve been quietly declining to return to restaurants owned by such morons for many years.
Poole, on the other hand, may be as Republican as they get, but he is having the time of his life. He wants to tell everybody how fantastic a job he has, and how his faith and outlook and damn hard work and, yes, political views, have helped made him a success. He’s optimistic and wild and carefree, and basically everything good about people. If you don’t leave this place with a smile, something must be wrong with you, because his upbeat and fabulous attitude is evident in all the staff, the decor, the photographs and the building itself. You are guaranteed a very good time here.
For quite a few years, however, this didn’t translate into very good barbecue. Randy stayed up here in the mountains for a few years and we ate here a couple of times (maybe in 2003-04) and then ate again at the antacid counter of the local drug store. It was, then, a place to visit for the considerable spectacle, but the pork was just so greasy that it really disappointed.
I told a lot of people this. I used to have an old barbecue review page on Geocities and shared this disappointment with everyone who came to it. I don’t know whether Poole ever saw that page or whether he concluded on his own that his pork was too fatty and gross and his recipe needed changing, but I can tell you this: I once had two meals here, about a year apart, which were marred by the heavy, greasy aftertaste, and a meal this past week which was easily among the best plates of barbecue that I’ve had in the state of Georgia. Top ten, easy. I was prepared to sop up the pork with a paper towel before I started eating, but was very pleasantly surprised. The pork was dry and very smoky, and so incredibly flavorful. I can’t remember ever having a meal at a restaurant that much of a 180-degree turn towards the positive before, ever. It wasn’t just the pork, either. We also had onion rings, Brunswick stew, baked beans, green beans and mac and cheese as sides, and everything was incredibly tasty.
The restaurant was amazingly busy on this Saturday – they call in extra, volunteer help for Ellijay’s apple festival, which brings in thousands of tourists – and we arrived along with a huge tour group from a Baptist church in Louisiana, most of whom were wearing LSU shirts. Let’s see, they had this great barbecue for lunch and the Tigers beat Florida in The Swamp that evening. Sounds like everybody there had a fine Saturday.
(Of course, the small irony in comparing Oscar Poole to Grandpa Munster is that Grandpa Al Lewis was about as left-wing as they get, although equally bombastic and fun. No offense, Col. Poole.)
Other blog posts about Poole’s: