By Kim West
A muddy slice of a bygone era was scooped up by a track hoe and served into a waiting Mack truck as the vacant restaurant building in the L&S Shopping Center was taken down Thursday morning.
The estimated 2,400-square-foot building has been the home of a restaurant known by several different names since it was originally built more than 50 years ago. Deano’s Barbecue was the last restaurant to occupy the building in 2010 and 2011, according to city business license records.
The L&S Foodland was built in 1953 and re-built three months after a fire burned the grocery store to the ground on July 30, 1971. Shopping center owners Dick Smith and Billy Smith closed the store in September 2011 after 58 years and sold the seven-acre L&S property, including the restaurant building across from the grocery store, to the county in May 2012.
Two of the founding owners of L&S were Dick’s father, Harold Smith, and Billy’s father, Billy G. Smith. They were highly regarded by the local community for being caring and fair businessmen. One of the most popular anecdotes about the Smiths is that their employees were still paid while the store was being re-built.
“The way I understand it, none of his employees missed a paycheck,” said state Rep. Dan Williams, R-Athens, who was mayor of Athens for 18 years. “L&S had a local clientele, and it was almost the atmosphere of the old country store that had been modernized. Everybody up there knew each other, and the clientele was very loyal to the (Foodland).
“People really liked the Smiths because they were upstanding people, real good folks who provided jobs, treated people right and wouldn’t let anyone go hungry.”
The Dixie Dip
The restaurant originally opened as The Dixie Dip and was a drive-up with carhops.
“It was built in the mid-1960s, and it was owned by Mr. Buford and Mary Romine,” said Dick Smith, whose father Harold was one of the original L&S owners. “There wasn’t anywhere to sit inside, and they served ice cream and hamburgers.”
It was unclear whether another restaurant was in operation after The Dixie Dip closed and before Crow’s Nest Restaurant opened in the early 1980s.
Eloise Crow and her husband, Joe Crow, owned the Crow’s Nest, which occupied the space from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. She grew up nearby and was sad to learn the restaurant had been torn down.
“I lived two doors up from L&S, and I have a lifetime of memories there,” said Crow, whose daughter-in-law, Stephanie Wilbourn, helped her run the diner. “We put a lot of hard work and tears into that restaurant, and there was a lot of work to do in there when we first opened. I didn’t think I was going to make it but I loved it and everyone loved it.”
Eloise said the restaurant, which also featured four outdoor gasoline pumps, served country-style food, including a specialty item that she never found appetizing but would bring in diners from throughout the area. In the first five years, breakfast, lunch and dinner were served but she dropped dinner service because it required being open from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“Once a month we had chitlin’ suppers,” she said. “I never could eat them, but we had a lot of people who ate them. It was sad to see it (the restaurant) go down because it served a lot of people in its day.”
After Crow’s Nest closed its L&S location, Wilbourn opened Stephanie’s Diner, which she ran for several years until closing in the mid-2000s.
Crow described Wilbourn as “my right arm, my right leg, my right everything” when they operated Crow’s Nest together. Stephanie’s Diner buffet cook Christa Crabtree said Wilbourn was a well-liked owner by both the employees and customers.
The diner also served country-style cooking and brought in extra customers on the days when specials were available.
“I’d go in the mornings and I could basically cook what I wanted to,” Crabtree said. “There was always some type of beans, plus we would have sweet potatoes, okra and turnip greens. We had a crowd when we had chicken and dressing and pork chops.”
Crabtree said the diner brought in a mixture of court employees, hospital workers and law-enforcement officers, including Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely and slain Athens Police Officer Tony Mims, 40, who was ambushed along with Athens Police Sgt. Larry Russell, 42, during a call on Jan. 2, 2004.
“I remember Tony coming in and we would joke around and agree that teenagers should be put in cages until they turn 30 because we both had kids that age,” she said.
End of an era
In the late 2000s, a string of proprietors tried to keep a restaurant afloat in the L&S building. Mama Bear’s Country Cooking had a business license following Stephanie’s but closed in 2009. Deano’s had a license in 2010 and 2011, but struggled to make a dent in the Athens barbecue market.
“It was kind of a very bittersweet memory seeing the restaurant gone,” Crabtree said. “I was hoping they would put a Star Market there (in the Foodland building), and I was hoping they wouldn’t tear down that restaurant.
“I know they say a lot of people moved but there are still a lot of people in that area who would walk to the restaurant. Having another restaurant and grocery store could have revitalized that area.”
Williams said the key to revitalization is commercial development and teamwork between city and county officials.
“I think the city and county really needs to work on some type of project there that would tie into economic development and bring some commercial business there,” Williams said. “At one time it was a commercial center … we could do that again.”