Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Burger Fit for Aunt Bee

Want to eat at an old-fashioned place with time-honored values that seems to thrive even as its town has fallen on hard times? Then travel to Siler City, a historic railroad town with about 8,000 residents in a farming community in the center of North Carolina. The town where Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) retired after starring on The Andy Griffith Show, Siler City is better known as the home of Johnson’s Drive-In.

Johnson’s Drive-In has a history of satisfying customers for more than 65 years. It is the choice for many Southerners traveling on U.S. 421 or U.S. 64 that slices through the town. Now a four-lane road with constant traffic, U.S. 64 was a gravel road when the drive-in was opened by Leonard and Christine Johnson in 1946.

Claxton Johnson, son of the late founders, was on the grill when I arrived. Several customers, standing by a wall, were chatting in small groups and with others in the drive-in that they recognized. Although a few just wanted to order food to go, most were waiting for a place to sit because all 12 seats at the counter as well as the booths by the front window were occupied. As I waited, a long-time local customer clued me in on the restaurant’s history. I was lucky only 10 people were waiting; if the day had not been rainy, the drive-in would have been more crowded.

After a brief wait, I took a stool at the counter next to a lady who travels between Raleigh and Salisbury; this visit was the first time in many attempts that she was able to get a seat. Now that I was only an arm’s length from Johnson, I could observe the master at work. His focus on cooking 12 patties at a time was interrupted by only an occasional greeting from a familiar face. Each burger starts as a hunk of Western grain-fed, USDA-choice beef (the second highest rating after prime) that Johnson presses into a patty after it has withstood the initial sizzling hot surface.

After the only flip, he adds a slab of Velveeta cheese, just cut from a block by the grill. Before taking each patty off the grill, he adds half of the bun for a few moments before laying the patties on the rest of the buns lined in a row at the next station on wax paper and dressed to the customers' orders (with lettuce, tomato, slaw, chili, or other fixin's). As Johnson moves about the grill, family members weave around each other behind the counter without speaking like a dance ensemble that knows each other’s every move in advance.

Open only four hours on Tuesdays through Saturdays, Johnson’s Drive-In (which no longer serves outside but still retains drive-in in its name) is definitely a place no one should arrive late. After the meat bought that morning is gone, the drive-in closes. All fixin’s are also bought fresh in the morning, and nothing is saved for the next day.

As I left, Daniel Routh, known for guitar and vocals with the bluegrass group Nu-Blu that has won the Carolina Music Award for Country Band of the Year, rang up my bill. In 2006 Routh married Johnson’s daughter Carolyn, who has worked in the restaurant all her life and continues the family’s dedication to good food started by her grandfather, who was working at the restaurant only a few hours before he passed in 1985.

Although business at Johnson’s is thriving, Siler City has been beset by several economic problems best illustrated by the closing in 2011 of a poultry plant by Townsends Inc., the town’s largest employer, and the loss of more than 600 jobs. One way that the town has sought to recover from the impacts of such major declines has been to reinvent itself as a hub of creative arts. It is now capitalizing on the economic value of arts-based small businesses and is serving as the home to the N.C. Arts Incubator. However, Johnson himself makes a more significant statement about the economic value of community pride and the benefits of no-frills hard work and excellent service that provides continuity for customers as well as his family in his small town setting.

However, as Aunt Bee might have known, the importance of Siler City is not just the arts (and the monthly Third Friday Artwalk from 6 to 9 pm). It is the sense of community and family shared by many as they eat at Johnson’s. Rather than retire to her native New York City or glamorous Hollywood or Mount Airy (considered by many to be the fictional town of Mayberry, where close friendships in the community were paramount), she chose a small town in central North Carolina, where she fell in love with "all the pretty roads and the trees." When she died in 1989, she was buried in the Siler City’s Oakwood Cemetery, only a few minutes away from the establishment known for its hometown atmosphere, traditional family values and delicious burgers.

Although modern enough to have a page on Facebook, Johnson’s continues to serve old-fashioned burgers in a time-honored tradition that would have made Aunt Bee as proud as the local residents and the current travelers who stop for good food in a family setting.

No comments:

Post a Comment