Courtesy of The Kennedy

Just up the road from growing Greenville, a slice of the old South is feeling kind of new 

David Landsel
January 24, 2019

There is this little stretch of four lane road, not far from the historic center of Spartanburg, South Carolina, where nowadays you mostly go when your car needs attention—a new muffler, a tune-up, wheel balancing, maybe a nice interior detailing. Since the end of World War II, this part of town has also been an exceedingly popular destination for anyone in need of a quick bite, thanks entirely to the presence of the Beacon Drive-In.

Spartanburg's best-known restaurant is one of America's longest-running (and most treasured) drive-ins, a place where car hops still dart around the lot, where no-frills pimento or chili cheeseburgers come buried in mountains of crispy fried onion shards and french fries, and where they go through more than three thousand pounds of sugar every single week, just making their famous sweet tea, which they will tell you is made in quantities large enough to fill roughly twenty-five tanker trucks. 

So entwined with the neighborhood, so important to Spartanburg is the Beacon, the street you will find it on is named John Belton White, Sr. Boulevard, after the restaurant’s founder. White opened the restaurant on Thanksgiving Day in 1946 with two partners and barely $2,000 in the budget—he remained a presence there until the late 1990’s, famously retaining a number of employees for very nearly as long as the restaurant had been around. Today, the Beacon is owned by new people, but it’s still the Beacon, and it still matters, mostly because we've already lost too many of its contemporaries. Also, those onion rings, and that sweet tea? Pretty good stuff. If you happen to be anywhere near Spartanburg, drop on by. 

Once you're here, don't rush off, either, because there are interesting things to see. A couple of blocks up the boulevard is Main Street, and for a city you’ve probably never considered before, it is awfully charming. Spartanburg, like most cities of its size, fell pretty far from its peak before taking the slow climb back toward good health, but thanks to a considerable amount of investment, downtown is a pleasant place, these days—along the nicely-landscaped main drag, there is the Hub City Bookshop & Press, a hive of energy even on a weekend afternoon, there are as many coffee shops as one street could ever need, a sparkling new hotel (sensitively designed to appear as if it had been there, all along) has opened its doors, there are two wine bars, and there are restaurants, plenty of them. 

Courtesy of The Kennedy

There are reasons for all of this, of course; mostly, cities this sleepy don’t support downtowns with so many apparently thriving independent businesses. Most cities of this size, however, are not minutes away from the most productive BMW manufacturing plant in the world, as Spartanburg is, or just a few minutes more from Michelin’s North American headquarters. Typically, these things are associated with the astounding growth of nearby Greenville, one of the most dynamic small cities in the south at the moment—all this activity appears to have benefited Spartanburg as well in recent years, which of course brings its own contributions to the metropolitan region’s economy; one very visible contribution can be found at the upper end of Main Street, in the form of a 1990’s office building towering eighteen stories above the otherwise diminutive downtown skyline—just look for the unmistakable Denny’s logo. Ever since the worldwide brand was acquired by a local company in the late 1980’s, the Southern California-founded chain has been headquartered here in Spartanburg. There’s no Denny’s flagship on the ground floor, sadly. Apparently, there used to be something, but today, things appear to be awfully quiet, over there.

Which is fine, because if you walk around the corner of the tower, and then one block more, you’ll wind up at Spartanburg’s best restaurant, at least for the moment. The Kennedy used to be an Italian restaurant, and it did not look nearly as nice or as modern as the place looks now; this is the latest project from the closest thing Spartanburg has to a celebrity chef, William Cribb; along with a partner, he has created the sort of restaurant you might expect to find in nearby Greenville, or even an hour up the road (and several planets away) in Asheville. Charcuterie plates, Lowcountry oysters, chicken fried quail with red eye gravy, housemade pastas, little plates for sharing—everything’s up to date, right down to the wines by the glass list, which recently included quirky finds from Corsica and the Basque region.

The restaurant joins a handful of other noteworthy stops either on or very close to Main Street—there’s The Farmer’s Table, a popular spot that makes much of its ties to local sources, a place popular enough that they ended up moving into a larger space, last year; there is Chris Walker’s Blue Moon Market, a casual cafe and shop serving not only as the flagship for Walker’s popular sauces, spice mixes and pimento cheeses, but also as a great place for a casual lunch, followed by a slice of buttermilk pie. There’s more, and still more to come, and who knows what the future holds for Spartanburg, but one thing’s for certain—whatever happens, if everything else went away, you’d likely still find the Beacon thriving, over there on White Boulevard, and you’d still want to drive out of your way to get there.

Courtesy of The Kennedy