Photo Post 1: Newnan, GA

This is the first of four posts this week in which I’m going to let the pictures do almost all of the talking. This isn’t a format change, just an opportunity to do things a little different once in a while, and show off some finds outside of our traditional standards of “article about a restaurant with two photos.” Continue reading “Photo Post 1: Newnan, GA”

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Dean’s Barbeque, Jonesboro GA

So the other week, I was talking to Jimmy Dean, younger brother of the retired Roger Dean — yes, that’s right, same names as the sausage guy and the Yes album cover guy — about his late father’s barbecue sauce recipe, and I had to raise an eyebrow in appreciation when he said that his father got the recipe from the actress Vivien Leigh. This is Clayton County, after all. Just the day before, a fire at a nearby public storage facility made the news by wiping out priceless and unique Gone With the Wind memorabilia that had been archived there. Google even sent me down a road called Tara Boulevard to get here. Continue reading “Dean’s Barbeque, Jonesboro GA”

O.B.’s BBQ, McDonough GA

I have been driving past O.B.’s for many years, not knowing that it is the last remaining store in a failed expansion into the suburbs of Atlanta. Similar in a way to The Mad Italian and Old Hickory House, the large store in McDonough is the only thing remaining from an attempt at growing that just didn’t take. There used to be three more locations, including one further south down I-75 at that Tanger Outlet Mall in Locust Grove, and one in south Cobb County, near Mableton. This store was sold to a new owner in 2010, who renamed it J-Bones. Well, there’s something else to investigate further.

I first spotted O.B.’s in 2004. If you’re a longtime reader, and actually remember recurring jokes that have not recurred in many, many entries, you may recall that I regard 2004 as a mistake-filled year. One of the few things that I did that year that was not at all a mistake was popping down to visit a friend in Macon a few times, and I noticed the restaurant then. So this is slightly better than seven years now, and I finally stopped in. I plead “other barbecue restaurants” in my defense; the same exit (218) that a driver would take to get to O.B.’s would get you over to Southern Pit in the other direction, for example. Plus, you know, there were usually restaurants in Macon awaiting me.

At any rate, confirming that O.B.’s is one of the criminally few barbecue restaurants in middle Georgia that’s open on Sunday, it has been on the backlist for whenever travel plans forced us onto the road then. Our most recent visit to Saint Simons saw us coming home then, and so we stopped by for an early supper.

Travelers can’t help but notice O.B.’s, because they made the good choice, many years ago, to build on a frontage road parallel to I-75 and erect a huge, interstate-friendly tall sign. Many years ago, O.B.’s was called Outback’s, but apparently some legal grumbling came from the direction of that big chain restaurant, the one sponsors what I’d like to still call the Hall of Fame Bowl. (Similarly, the December 31st game in Atlanta is still called the Peach Bowl around my TV.) A bit of cheeky nose-thumbing comes from a slogan beneath the restaurant’s name: “Real Pit Out-n-Back.”

Inside, it’s really not possible to eat without getting the vibe that this restaurant’s glory days are behind it. It’s nowhere as bleak and decrepit as Dunwoody’s Old Hickory House, mercifully, but it was only a fifth and maybe a quarter full on a Sunday evening. There were several young servers around, being a little bored and idle. The bright, shiny, corporate-designed menus really drive home the point that this place used to have fellow stores. I’m not sure what this place did wrong, because the food is really quite good. Many places around Atlanta have made a bid for expansion, and I think the pork here was certainly good enough to warrant the effort. Perhaps the other stores were just mismanaged or something, because this isn’t at all bad.

I just had a pork sandwich on Texas toast. This comes with lettuce, tomato and onion, and of course, these aren’t necessary for a barbecue sandwich, but I figure I needed some vegetables. Honestly, this was the least of the three barbecue meals that we had that weekend, following Southern Soul and Smokin Pig, but that’s not a fair comparison, because those other two places were downright amazing.

The meat here was smoky and juicy and stood out as better than many other places that I have tried. The beans were good, and the Brunswick stew was quite excellent. I can’t honestly rave about it quite as much as 3rd Degree Berns, one of my absolute favorite barbecue writers, did, but it’s nevertheless very good stew. The three table sauces are all variations of the same somewhat thick brown tomato-vinegar-pepper mixture, in mild, sweet and hot versions.

Was it worth a seven year wait? Probably not, and some grouchy online reviews suggest that this pretty good meal was even better years ago. Did O.B.’s take their eye off the ball when they expanded, or have things improved again now that they have consolidated from four locations to one? I’m not certain, but I’m glad this is available for travelers to find so easily. Honestly, if you’ve only time for a quick stop just off the exit ramp without a lot of detour and hunting, then I can’t think of a better place right by the highway between Atlanta and Macon. I hope that they weather their downsizing well enough to last a lot longer.

Other blog posts about O.B.’s:

Buster’s Blogs (July 24 2009)
BBQ Biker (Aug. 22 2009)
3rd Degree Berns Barbecue Sabbatical (Sep. 1 2009)

Sprayberry’s Barbecue, Newnan GA

I stand by something not entirely professional that I said once that got started on that old Geocities barbecue page that I used to maintain. John Kessler is the restaurant writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and many years ago, he sparked an e-mail issue that went on for several months with my readers and Google-surfers. He’d given a rave review to a barbecue place that I then visited with stars in my eyes, ready for the best meal of my life, only to find wet crock pot bilge on my plate. So I related my displeasure on that page – this would have been sometime in 2002 – and enjoyed correspondence with barbecue fans on the subject for months. One older gentleman compared the restaurant in question to the Iraqi army, a point that still tickles me. Everybody hated this place.

I figure that if I was getting that much positive feedback for a crappy “hey, I learned HTML from a book in 1997” Geocities page for disagreeing with the food critic, then Mr. Kessler must have been buried in hate mail. So a few months later, he had a fantastic new column up, wherein he and some buddies took an awesome barbecue tour around the region to try out all the restaurants that all his feedback told him was better than this place in question. It was a really good column, and I say that even though they went to Old MacDonald in Buford, which I love absolutely and am long past due to revisit, and didn’t like it. (Having said that, I looked up Old MacDonald on Urbanspoon and was really stunned by its low rating and poor reviews. Apparently there has been a change of ownership and it has plummeted downhill…? Well, that’s not encouraging.)

Anyway, what absolutely baffled and upset me was this: these Atlanta Journal-Constitution writers went down to Newnan to eat at Sprayberry’s Barbecue and did not like it. This place was Lewis Grizzard’s favorite restaurant. He ate there once a month. When the beloved writer passed, the restaurant memorialized him by bundling his favorite meal together on the menu as The Lewis Grizzard Special. And here was a negative, dismissive review of Grizzard’s favorite meal in the pages of the AJC. I never thought I’d live to see the day.

Once upon a time, when Atlanta was newly called “Hotlanta,” Maynard Jackson was mayor and the most amazing event on the area’s calendar was an inner tube race -slash – bacchanalia down the Chattahoochee past the old swingers’ apartments that drowned three drunks annually, Lewis Grizzard and Ron Hudspeth ruled that newspaper. Those were awesome days. You want to see some fun newspaper writing, go dig up some evening papers from the late seventies, where those two would drink their weight in bourbon, show up sauced after the staff had gone home and crank out some incredibly funny tale of some crackpot kinfolk in a one-horse town who once had a recipe for black-eyed peas that would cure cancer, when applied, in a poulice, to the back of your knee before your dog died and your pigtailed cousin’s skirts got too short. The AJC was a freaking wonderful paper then, with these two redneck drunks ranting about whatever the hell misty-eyed nostalgic Southern weirdness crossed their minds, and then Celestine Sibley saying much the same thing, only sober, the next section over.

To see this same newspaper then dismiss this great drunk’s favorite restaurant, well, it just made a fellow utter something a little unprofessional.

Sprayberry’s was the last stop on the little barbecue tour that Marie and I took a week ago, but it is a place that I’ve visited every couple of years for ages. They have two locations, including a large, interstate-friendly one right off the I-85 Newnan exit, but the one to see is the building further into town. Sprayberry’s opened in 1926 and has been attracting the attention of food writers for decades. Apart from Grizzard, whose love of the place was legendary, and spilled out into a good dozen of his columns, Roadfood’s Jane and Michael Stern wrote about the restaurant in 1990 for their syndicated Taste of America feature. Strangely, however, Sprayberry’s is not currently included among the Georgia places reviewed on their current site. I wonder why.

Now it does have a reputation as being a pretty expensive place for barbecue, especially when compared with Speedi-Pig over in Fayetteville. Here, Grizzard’s regular meal of a pulled pork sandwich, onion rings and stew will run you ten bucks before a drink and tip. Yikes! It’s all very good, but the sticker shock can be rough.

I really enjoyed eating here with my dad once. In 2006, I was out of work for a few months when the insurance company that I was with closed. Dad was beginning to have to slow down and not drive long distances, but he had a new potential customer down in Newnan, so, since I wasn’t doing anything, he asked me to drive him here to meet him. My daughter and I dropped him off with his client that morning and picked him up two hours later and we had lunch at the exit ramp location. I remember confusing my daughter with the unusual drinks on the menu. A holdover from the days before fountain fruit sodas were very common, you can get an “orange special,” which I believe is two parts orange soda to one part grape, and a “grape special,” which is two parts grape soda to one part orange. Of course, you could make this or ask for this anywhere, but only Sprayberry’s puts it on the menu.

That was a good day. I especially liked the part where Dad picked up the check.

On our own dimes, Marie and I split a Grizzard special. The pulled pork – a little smoky and very moist – is served without sauce. That comes in a bowl, like they serve it at Wallace Barbecue in Austell. The sauce is not quite the usual tomato-vinegar mix you get in the region. It is a little sweeter than you would expect from a vinegar sauce, and thinner. Guests can either spoon the sauce over the meat, or dip chunks of it in the bowl. The onion rings are also very sweet, and made with a buttermilk batter. They are among my very favorites. The stew, more “Virginia Brunswick” than “Georgia Brunswick,” is thick enough to be eaten with a fork. It’s quite different from the amazing stuff they offer at Speedi-Pig, but very agreeable all the same. Oh, and they serve it with a bowl of really amazing sweet pickles. Mention how much you like them and they might just bring you another bowl of ’em.

I’ve always really liked Sprayberry’s. True, not all of the food here is drop-dead amazing, but it’s all presented with so much care and love, and considering that most of the staff seems to be high school kids, I remain very pleasantly surprised by just how well they coach and train their employees. I get a kick out of the throwback feel of the menu, which, apart from the silly sodas, includes such things as congealed salad and an “aristocratic” hamburger, which has a salad and French dressing atop the patty. You can also get that very old Southern Saturday night classic, a hamburger steak smothered in onions. In fact, the old-fashioned, upscale feel to the menu here puts Sprayberry’s more in line with, say, Atlanta’s Colonnade than most of the barbecue shacks that I like the most. It adds up to a very unique experience at a place that’s been doing it right for 85 years.

Don’t worry, Lewis. Pay your old newspaper no never mind; Sprayberry’s is still in good shape.

Other blog posts about Sprayberry’s:

Chopped Onion (2009)
3rd Degree Berns Barbecue Sabbatical (Mar. 15 2010)
Buster’s Blogs (Apr. 13 2010)

Classic Que in Griffin and Fayetteville GA

I remember our first trip to Southern Pit very well. It was May 28, 2009, and while we weren’t blogging yet, I was nevertheless using Roadfood.com to find new and fun places to eat on our way on our trips down to Saint Simons Island and back. On that trip, Marie and the kids and I stopped in for lunch on our way to go get married, which is why it’s fairly easy to remember the date. I’m good about remembering the day we got hitched (the 30th); Marie’s birthday, slightly less so, on account of her decision to never enter that date anyplace like Facebook where I get a cheat friendly reminder. We had a huge lunch that day, and Marie capped things off with some delicious blackberry cobbler. I later waxed hyperbolic about how awesome this place was, and returned a few months later with Matt and our friend Kevin, shortly before he flew back out to California to resume work in academia.

As we’re entering the last few weeks of pregnancy, I struck a compromise between our twin desires to get out and drive and yet not stray too far from home. I’ve worked up a pair of short afternoon barbecue tours for Marie and I to enjoy small road trips without exhausting her. The first one is what I termed the “West Central Georgia Tour,” and was originally intended to bring us to two of the remaining stops on our goal of all the Roadfood.com-reviewed sites in the state: Southern Pit and Melear’s Barbecue in Fayetteville. Unfortunately, or not, considering its low reputation of late, Melear’s closed in January. So the revised plan saw us driving down I-75 to Griffin, then going north and west to Fayetteville for Speedi-Pig, and then further west to Sprayberry’s in Newnan before returning north on I-85. By chance, and not design, all three of the places we visited are reviewed on the wonderfully fun Chopped Onion, one of my favorite sites for finding barbecue joints and hot dog stands.

Should any of my Atlanta-based readers be interested in retracing our (planned) steps and doing their own simple tour as a day trip, I’d like to point out that you can also sample a McDonough barbecue restaurant called O.B.’s very easily on this path; it’s on the same exit (218) off I-75 that you take to go to Griffin. The same plan we took, with minor detours, should also take you near Uncle Frank’s in Fayetteville, Cafe Pig in Peachtree City, and Westside in Newnan. We haven’t visited any of these places yet, but you might could make a really full day of it if you’d like. Let me know how it goes for you!

By chance, the road that we ended up taking sped us past yet another place that I’d like to try one day: Dean’s Barbecue in Jonesboro. See, we had planned to drive down to exit 218 and shoot across 20 to Southern Pit, but after having dealt with insane construction traffic in north Atlanta on I-75, we were in no mood to sit and wait for all the spring break congestion that started building at exit 230. We could have sat bumper-to-bumper crawling for twelve miles, but I trusted our navigation instincts and we got off at 228 and found US 41 that way, which took us right past Dean’s. Some other day, perhaps.

We finally got to Southern Pit about forty minutes behind schedule. The place is not really easy to find; it isn’t signed very well, but if you are driving south, keep looking to your left and you should see it through the trees, its small sign dwarfed by the ones for Georgia Lawn Equipment and Toro brand mowers. Then make a U-turn across the divided highway when you get a chance.

The chopped pork here is not very dry and not especially smoky, but it is nice and pink and packed with flavor. Readers who have been following my recent series of memory issues will be pleased to hear that I ordered my sandwiches without any sauce at each business we visited, so that I could get a better taste for the meat before smothering it. They have a single sauce at Southern Pit: it’s a nice, brown tomato and vinegar mix, and is very sour and tangy.

I thought the Brunswick stew was pretty good, but was extremely pleased with the cracklin’ cornbread. I had been a little disappointed last year when I went to Harold’s and could hardly find a crackle anywhere in the bread, but this was just popping with them and it complemented the stew very well.

Sadly, I have to take a little issue with the desserts on offer. We were surprised to see blackberry cobbler available this early in the season. Marie asked about it and our server – points for truth – confirmed that they get the blackberries from Sysco. (“He said the S Word,” I whispered later.) The strawberry cream pie, he assured us, was made fresh in house, and this turned out to be quite good. Marie had a slice of that in lieu of a side for her chopped pork sandwich, and we were happy and pleased as we got on the road for stop number two.

The second visit was in Fayetteville, a town that neither of us had ever visited before. If it wasn’t painfully obvious from earlier chapters, when I’ve lived in the Atlanta area (which would be all but twelve years of my life) I’ve always been a resident of the northern ‘burbs: Smyrna, Alpharetta and Marietta. I just never got down this way very much.

A manager at Southern Pit had given us better directions to get over to Georgia-92 – just take Birdie Road west and cut off a huge corner, enjoying some very pretty land and houses along the way – but he could not have prepared us for an unexpected detour. An accident or fire shut down this highway completely, and a Fayette County sheriff sent us on a left turn. We shrugged and hoped for the best and eventually joined Georgia 85, which, happily, not only hooks up with 92 just outside the Fayetteville city limits, it is the very road – Glynn Street – that we were looking for. Unfortunately, it is marked amazingly poorly, and we did not know that it was Glynn Street until we drove right past Speedi-Pig and had to turn around.

My buddy Rex had told me that his girlfriend swears by Speedi-Pig’s Brunswick stew. It is similarly singled out by both Chopped Onion and another of my favorite barbecue blogs, the frustratingly-on-hiatus 3rd Degree Berns. None of these good people come close to telling you the real truth: this stew is amazing, easily just about the best in Georgia. It’s a toss-up between this and Harold’s, flatly. You will definitely want a large order of this stuff.

The chopped pork is diced pretty finely and, while it has a nice smoky taste to it, I did not like it nearly as much as I did Southern Pit’s meat. On the other hand, the price is just amazing. For 99 cents, you get a really good portion of meat on a “piglet” sandwich. I ordered two, but really only needed one. They have two sauces on the table, mild and hot varieties of a vinegar-tomato-pepper mix, and apparently they keep a much more potent hot sauce behind the counter, but I did not think to try it. The hot sauce wasn’t that much different from the mild, honestly. The barbecue is not at all bad here, and neither is the slaw – mayo-based and easy on the dressing – but the stew is the selling point. Run, don’t walk, to Fayetteville, friends.

I noticed that a party of four was asking one of the servers what had become of Melear’s. I expect that’s going to be a question the staff will be answering for months to come. It’s always a shame to see a much-loved, very old restaurant close its doors, even if its reviews had been pretty awful lately, and especially before I was able to try it.

We didn’t linger at either restaurant, but were still a little behind schedule as we got back on the road and headed west. More about that in the next chapter.

Other blog posts about Southern Pit:

Roadfood.com (Aug. 25 2004)
Chopped Onion (2010)

Other blog posts about Speedi-Pig:

Chopped Onion (2008)
3rd Degree Berns Barbecue Sabbatical (Mar. 13 2010)