Mayhem at the Happy Valley Motor Lodge and Resort
Mayhem at the Happy Valley Motor Lodge and Resort

Top: The rug covered parking area; left: After dinner fish waiting for it’s to-go box. 

Not the Usual Diner

The last few winters I’ve stayed in a cabin on one of the tributaries of Blackfish Creek about 45 minutes below Savannah, Georgia, and across the marsh from Harris Neck Wildlife Sanctuary.

Farther out past the wildlife sanctuary, a chef with a colorful reputation makes amazing food in a restaurant with ambience—big ambience that is hard to adequately describe, although I’m going to give it a try.

I visited on a dark and stormy night just after arriving at my friend’s cabin across the marsh. I’d picked up milk and brought staples from Vermont, but a Kroger run in Richmond Hill the next morning was needed for a meal of more than toast and tea.

Restaurants in the small towns nearby, Eulonia and Shellman Bluff, are few and far between. The Old School Diner was the closest one to me that was open.

It was, however, likely the hardest to find, particularly on a night with no moon. Traveling down the dark country byways through the marsh and past the Sanctuary, I missed the turn-in and had to circle back. Even Google Maps could not find the exact location, a narrow dirt track into the pine woods at the marsh’s edge.

If you want to give it a try—and I recommend you do—the Diner is about five miles deep into the murky back of beyond once you turn down Harris Neck Road off of Route 17. The place is marked by a hand-lettered sign that amounts to white scratching on plywood. The sign provides the only clue you have arrived since the restaurant isn’t visible. Drive by fast and you’ll miss it. 

After turning in, the first thing I noticed—having been forewarned—is that the entire parking area is covered in old pieces of carpet. Although I was prepared for this sight, it was still hard to believe my eyes, particularly because the area hadn’t been leveled before the carpets were layered on top. Imagine a cratered moonscape covered in a patchwork of dusty carpet and you will not be as surprised as I was at this incongruous sight.

My car and another were the only vehicles in that unlit moonscape. That gave me pause, but I was hungry and willing to have an adventure, so I headed on inside, passing through one room and then down a twisty hallway into another narrow but cozy room—if the fireplace had been working, which it was not. That’s where the waitress found me.

 I followed her farther into the labyrinth to the main dining room—which was blessedly warm although the smell of damp was strong. I hoped whatever was growing in there wouldn’t cause an allergy attack.

 This big dining room was bright enough, although it did have what looked to be a small wrestling platform at one side—with a dining table on top of it roped in to keep any pugilistic (or drunk?) diners from going over the side. The ceiling was foam insulation between unfinished rafters. Not exactly atmospheric, although there were some fishing nets and plastic lobsters hanging here and there to add real ambience.

The only other diners were at a table across the room—I surmised they had shown up in the other car parked on the carpet. I speculated that weekends must be the big nights at The Old School. 7:00 p.m. on that January pre-pandemic Thursday? Not so much. Ten minutes after arriving, I became the lone diner and stayed that way. 

Like the other rooms I passed through, the decor of the main dining room, from ceiling on down was covered in snapshots of the owner, Chef Jerome, with his guests. These images were packed so tightly together they formed a virtual wallpaper of Polaroids.

The menu comprised seafood caught locally—flounder, whiting, grouper, and shrimp— everything served FRIED unless you specified Not Fried. You could also order chicken, which only came FRIED, and BBQ—I’m assuming that was Not Fried. All sides—slaw and baked or fried taters—were à la carte for $2 to $4. The only entrée under $22 was the fried chicken. 

 I decided to forgo the gator tail appetizer—I forgot to mention the gator—and ordered grouper with coleslaw. The waitress then brought five fat hushpuppies, whereupon I learned the reason I never liked hushpuppies was because I’d never eaten a good one. Stopping at two was a heroic effort.

 Then the fish came. A whole fish in the form of two filets. Chef Jerome, the owner and impresario of the Diner, a burly guy, served my dinner himself. He wore a high chef’s toque. Whether true or not, he said he gave me a double portion to make sure I had enough. He followed that up by saying he loved me and everyone else, too. I told him I loved his hushpuppies. He replied that no one cooks better than him. I wasn’t about to argue.

I had forgotten to order Not Fried, so when the food was set on the table I justified the omission by reasoning that FRIED was the raison d’être of the place; to order otherwise would be to defy custom and good sense—if good sense doesn’t take saturated fat calories into consideration.

Whatever the consequences to my digestion and BMI, the fish was worth it. The breading on the grouper was phenomenal; crispy and thick and spicy, the fish perfectly moist. Excellent coleslaw too—though so over the top with mayo that three bites did me in. Dinner utensils included a fork—that’s it. I ate the fish dragged through darn good tartar sauce using my fingers. No one was in the room to witness my lack of etiquette. 

The shot at top left is of my meal after I’d eaten what I could. That leftover piece of fish is bigger than my hand. The coleslaw, presented in an old-school heavy glass cocktail cup, arrived at the center of the plastic plate surrounded by the grouper—a coleslaw fountain in a sea of fried fish.  

Chionodoxa glory of the snow
Chionodoxa glory of the snow

 I’ve included two shots of the dining room and one of the exterior, rugs and all. You can just make out the wrestling platform (above) behind Elvis in the dining room.

 The South, my darlins, ain’t like nowhere else. Aside from some of the politics, I like it that way.

 Do visit Chef Jerome and the Old School Diner. As those MasterCard ads exhort, the experience is priceless. 

 I’ll be returning next year with a friend in tow to share this singular dining experience. For the record, however, I won’t be trying the gator. I draw the line at reptiles—as well as at bunnies and frogs, but those are tales for another day.