Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Beacon Drive-In, Spartanburg, SC (aka Matt's All-Time Favorite Restaurant)

Everyone knows that the best way to woo a food lover is to ply them with delicious dishes and take them to all the best restaurants: so it should be no surprise that Matt won me over with his 'Smothered Grilled Chicken' (I must get him to do that for the blog!), his baked havarti, and his stories of a magical place called The Beacon Drive-In, in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Serving up heaping plates of burgers, fries, and onion rings (with a generous helping of grease) the Beacon is not haute cuisine, but it is home to some of the sweetest tea on the planet and, what's more, it's Matt's favorite restaurant...on earth.* It's only right, then, that we made time during our Christmas visit to make the pilgrimage - and I'm only sorry that it's taken me this long to write it up!

This is the Beacon Burger Plate-a-Plenty

According to its website, The Beacon Drive-In is a 'famous Southern landmark,' but according to Matt, it's so, so much more. The restaurant is a fixture of the community and also of Matt's childhood - even Matt's dad grew up eating at the Beacon. John B. White opened the original restaurant on Thanksgiving Day in 1946, and for more than 50 years his family staffed the counters of the Beacon. These days the restaurant, now in a new location, is staffed by a different family, but many of the workers have been with the Beacon since the early days.

Taking orders on the line

Without a doubt, the most well-known of these workers is J.C., the 'caller' who has worked at the Beacon for 57 years. He started as a fresh-faced 15-year old, and his face is likely the first you'll see when you walk into the Beacon, urging you to place your order, or 'Call it!'. This is an integral part of the ordering experience because, you see, ordering at the Beacon is not a leisurely affair. I don't think I've ever seen a place run so efficiently - to the point that I always rehearse my order before we step up to the line! Thankfully, there are a few paper menus provided for just this purpose, but when you get in line, you'd better be ready to 'Talk and Walk.'

Once you've ordered your plate of ultra-fried, fatty goodness (ordering 'a-plenty' will get you an avalanche - yes, a literal avalanche - of crispy onion rings and thick-cut fries) you progress down the 'line' where you can add extras like cobbler or a mammoth glass of the famous Beacon Tea. By the time you reach the other end your meal is ready, glistening and fragrant in all its fresh-from-the-fryer beauty (make sure you have cash, because it doesn't pay to Discover, or use any other credit card, at the Beacon).

The Beacon claims to serve more sweet tea than any restaurant in the world - and judging by the size of their cups, I'd believe it. Of course, if you manage to reach the bottom of your glass (before sugar-shock sets in), you can top up from any of the huge vats of tea located in each dining area. The ambiance is diner-chic - plastic chairs, ketchup dispensers, and murals on the wall - but that's all part of the experience. So is digging through massive mounds of fries and onion rings to find your entree - in my case, a few pieces of fried fish.

The Beacon can be a real shock to the system - especially if, like us, you very rarely eat fried food - but as a once-a-year indulgence, I can make an allowance. Just seeing the delight on Matt's face as he surveys his Beacon-Burger-a-Plenty (and yes, it's always the Beacon-Burger-a-Plenty) is possibly worth playing an annual game of Russian Roulette with a cardiac blockage.

This is the Beacon Burger - see the double bun?

While Matt is never less than delighted with his gargantuan meal (the burger is stuffed with everything imaginable, including coleslaw, and served on a double bun!) my fish left a little bit to be desired (they were out of catfish so I ended up with whiting). Matt claims that the Beacon is for Beacon Burgers and pork slice, and perhaps he's right. On the other hand, my hushpuppies really were good, and I've never met a French fry I didn't like. In any case, a trip to the Beacon isn't really just about the food.

And yes, he ate it all!

The Beacon was once featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, but it's not the celebrity factor that brings people to The Beacon, either.  It's nostalgia. A longing for a family connection and a bit of local history. After all, that's why Matt and I were there, and why we'll keep going back each time we're in SC. If the Beacon is around in another 50 years, I'm sure its 'regulars' will be, too.

Mural of the original Beacon Drive-In
For a look at the Beacon experience, check out the exempt from Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives:

And here are a few Beacon facts to whet your appetite:
  • The Beacon uses three tons of onions, three tons of potatoes, and four tons of beef, chicken and seafood per week!
  • The Beacon makes 62,500 gallons of Beacon Tea each year, using 3 tons of sugar per week.
  • The current Beacon Drive-In is located on John B. White, Sr. Blvd., named for the original restaurant's founder.
  • A busy weekend day sees about 4,000 visitors to The Beacon.
  • The Beacon is the second largest drive-in restaurant in the country, second only to The Varsity in Atlanta.
  • The Beacon added its Dairy Bar, serving more the 20 flavors of ice cream, in 1999.

*There's some competition from a little place called King Kebab, in Bamberg, Germany, but it's safe to say the The Beacon is his favorite Stateside eatery.

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  1. oh no.....this has to be one of those karma things.....I JUST started planning a trip to South Carolina...not kidding.
    Last night my son said "What are we going to do there?"

    1. That's quite a coincidence! My husband's family lives in SC so we visit often. I hope you have a great time (and if you're heading for the Beacon, pack some TUMS!)... and thanks for visiting the blog :)

  2. Okay, now I'm jealous..I'm so glad I found your blog but it's making me so hungry! I want to eat there!!! I love Diners, Drive in's and Dives..I live in Chicago, I used to visit Hilton Head every year, man I miss SC!!! If I'm ever in SC I'll have to hit up the Beacon!!!