When The El Dorado Was The Only Place To Go For Fresh Food
Originally published in Flagpole Magazine
My great-grandfather is supposed to have said that he’d just as soon open his mouth and let the sun shine down his throat as to eat white bread. I feel the same way, and did 30 years ago when “Good Food,” AKA the hippie-run Son House Restaurant in an old Broad Street filling station, was the only place in Athens that didn’t serve white bread and iceberg lettuce – or, for that matter, meat.
I was newly graduated from UGA and had grown to like this “cow town with a university.” I wasn’t exactly on a career track – not a fast one, anyhow. I was finding I liked doing things with my hands – working on my car – things I’d never done before. In those days you could work a part-time job and live in a $40-a-month room in a houseful of students with a shared refrigerator out in the hall. There were not nearly as many restaurants in Athens then, and the food tended toward “meat-and-two” vegetables plates – inexpensive but unremarkable. Student types could eat cheap at Alice’s on Thomas Street and admire the peculiar decor, including a chair and table – complete with place settings – bolted upside down to the ceiling. There was also Magnolia Terrace, a boarding-house where you joined others at a common table and passed the food around. But these places mostly served canned institutional food – nothing fresh but the cornbread. As for “better” restaurants, there almost weren’t any in Athens. You could eat Mexican, Chinese, steak or barbecue.
In The Day
Things were as crazy then as now: there was a crazy war going on, racial attitudes were tense, most white people (at least in the South) were out-and-out racists, but old attitudes were dying. Hard. The hippies wanted none of it. Actually “freaks” was what we called ourselves.
There was a sort of culture war between the old guard and the longhairs, and there wasn’t much middle ground. We were mostly middle-class kids with no real worries, but had enough sense – whatever our parents might think – not to buy into the skin color thing. Or the war on drugs (for better or worse). Or the war on sex. Or the white bread.
When the tiny Son House Restaurant opened (named after the blues singer), there were fresh flowers on every table, and the bread was home-baked. All the vegetables were fresh. The place had Athens’ best jukebox selection, Margaret Keister remembers, with all kinds of music.
Keister ran the place along with Carol Babb, Karen Hannon and Pam James. To buy feta cheese, somebody had to drive to Atlanta – you couldn’t buy it in Athens. (Supermarkets scarcely sold bread that wasn’t white; when they started to sell yogurt and herb teas, that seemed like a revolution.) The Son House closed after nine months because the building’s owner had other plans. But the tiny hippie restaurant had given me an idea.
Everybody thinks he wants to start a restaurant. What fun it will be; our friends will come! But it is a complicated, labor-intensive business that for the most part pays poorly (which is why restaurant folks deserve your tips).
In those days, some of us thought we could do anything. That would be about half right. But at 25, how do you know which half? After Son House closed, I asked Margaret if she wanted to start another restaurant. She didn’t, but Pam James did. My father gave me $10,000 to put into it. Pam and I drew up a partnership agreement – she would oversee food preparation, I would manage – and we began looking for a place. I’d heard that a restaurant’s location has a lot to do with its success.
Downtown Athens was thriving then. This was before the mall took away the bigger stores. Rents weren’t cheap. Over at “Hot Corner” – Washington Street at Hull – a young Alabaman named Johnny Bond had bought the old Morton Building, hoping eventually to sell it to the county or to a historical group (as in time he did). Meanwhile, he kept collecting rents from the dentist, the pool hall and the barber and beauty shops in the four-story building. And he was looking for a tenant for the old drugstore space on the corner.
It was a building with a history. “Pink” Morton had been an Athens newspaper publisher and builder who owned two dozen local buildings and was a delegate to the 1896 Republican convention, according to James K. Reap’s history of Athens. Inside the building, entirely above the second floor, was an old vaudeville theater. Bessie Smith once sang there, and Louie Armstrong, Blind Willie McTell and Duke Ellington, as well as local talent, had performed. The theater was said to possess excellent acoustics. By the 1930s vaudeville had subsided, and the Morton began showing movies – all for black audiences. Then, in the ’50s, a small projection-room fire closed the theater.
“It’s a good business corner,” people told us. Hot Corner had been, well, a hot corner for businesses (mostly black-owned) for many years. It was a little off the beaten track, but not far. The old drugstore had most recently been the “El Dorado Tavern.” It was painted completely black inside: the walls and the windows, too. It needed a lot of work, and the landlord wasn’t spending. But it had a solid terrazzo floor, high ceilings of pressed tin, an ancient ceiling fan and huge plate-glass windows.
Yes, we could see a restaurant there – just as soon as the wiring was replaced, the plumbing fixed, plaster scraped, tables built, benches, stoves, shelves, pots, licenses, inspections, tax forms…
We worked out a lease with the owner and got to work. The place generated a lot of interest. People stopped by to help on the promise of payment in meals once we opened, except for a couple of plumbers and electricians who weren’t that interested in vegetarian food.
We were calling the place by the name of the old tavern, “the El Dorado.” Nobody came up with a better name, so we just called the restaurant that, too. (My suggestion, “The Trough,” was discouraged by others.) It was about this time that Smokey Joe showed up – a scruffy giant with an Irish accent who told us hobo stories of his life. One night I let Joe sleep in the back room where food and beer were stored for opening day. Joe went through a good bit of the Budweiser and was out like a light in the morning. Later, sober, he thoughtfully advised me against leaving beer and hoboes together.
Our landlord entrusted me with the key to the old theater. I chased the pigeons out and tried to fix the roof. I loved to show people the dusty theater, to unlock those nondescript doors in a rundown hallway and stand back as they saw it for the first time – this hometown opera house, three stories high with balconies all around, where Bessie Smith once sang without a mike.
Inside the old drugstore-tavern we put up barnwood siding against the plaster walls, and repainted inside and out. It was a bright and pleasant space. The rusted-out tin ceiling had to be replaced with sheetrock, but Athens artisan Paul Chew added a colorful mural of spiraling galaxies. Charlie Gard’ner contributed a painting of avatar Meher Baba, an icon of the era: “Don’t worry, be happy.”
We built tables from lumber and adapted some old church pews. We covered the bathroom walls with pictures from old magazines. We bought house plants at yard sales. After a good deal of scraping, we found colored panes above the blacked-out windows. To make a long story short, it all got done (not quickly).
But it was only after the huge tractor-trailer from “Tree of Life,” a Florida wholesaler, pulled up to deliver our first food order that I really felt we had a restaurant. We put up a chalkboard menu, and the people who’d helped us build became wage-earning waiters (or “waitroids”) and cooks. We opened for lunch on April 9, 1975.
My restaurant training consisted of working at Pizza Hut. If I had gone to business school, I’d probably have been told that business startups need enough money to get through the first year. By opening day, we had spent it all.
My strategy was to run a clean, not-too-weird place that would appeal not just to hippies. It worked. On day two, we had people standing in line to be seated. It was a little bit like a miracle. We got a mix of students and hippies, business- and townspeople.
Although neither Pam nor I were confirmed vegetarians, we served no meat; given the variety of casseroles, quiches and stir-fries one could manage without it: who would miss it?
I wanted to put tables on the sidewalk; such a thing was unknown in Athens then. We went before the city council, but unfortunately I had failed to lay any groundwork in advance, and we were turned down. But when we dressed up the sidewalk with a tree in a concrete-pipe planter, the city said nothing.
The “Eldo” was never without music on the stereo – the well-remembered (and sometimes best forgotten) music of the time: the Mamas and Papas, James Taylor, Crosby Stills and Nash, Neil Young, The Beatles, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Joplin, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Steppenwolf, Hot Tuna, the Dead, the Allman Brothers. For me, hearing Steppenwolf brings back the whole crazy era: “like a true nature’s child, we were born, born to be wild,” and I am sure I’ll never get the Moody Blues out of my head.
The friendly Italian who picked up our trash for the city was Bob Russo. He was going to start his own restaurant, he told us, and eventually he started several. Deadpan troubadour Fred Schneider waited tables. His party band often practiced in the back while we cleaned up the restaurant at night. The B-52s, they called themselves. Brown’s Guide to Georgia wrote us up as a “hippie hut with a psychedelic ceiling.” The food was inexpensive and good, with different dishes every day (only brown rice and collards were the same, and the “through the garden” salad).
We bought local produce when we could get it, and sent our compost scraps back to the farm. Poree Sen Gupta, a native of India, came in to prepare authentic curries.
We kept a jar of homemade cookies by the checkout. It always amazed me that people would buy cookies until there were only two or three left in the jar, but no one would buy the last few cookies. The trick, of course, was to keep the jar filled.
The place paid for itself – barely – from the first day. Making money wasn’t one of our chief aims, fortunately. In retrospect we might have looked more toward the long term, raised our prices sooner, hired fewer part-time people. But the place gave people jobs and survived those early, interesting years. There must have been some wind at our backs, or maybe, as Fred later said about the success of “the B’s,” we were at the right place at the right time.
When I spoke to Pam about those days, we both recalled the problems we’d had. But we also realized that other people don’t remember those problems: they just enjoyed the place. Athens photographer (and vegetarian) Gary Crider remembers it as “the hub of my life for a long time. All my romances started there.” It attracted interesting people, he said, and the crowded tables and benches made it easy to meet people. And vegetarian food “was really hard to find back in those days.”
Jay Widener took a break from his landscaping work to serve as dining room manager and “just had a ball working there,” he now says. Whenever he thought the cooks had produced the best dish yet, it would be surpassed, he remembers. And it was a place where “you could be proud of what you were doing.”
“It wasn’t a restaurant, it was a lifestyle,” agrees Rick “the Printer” Hawkins, who printed menus and order tickets in exchange for food, and became a vegetarian under the place’s influence. “The El Dorado became sort of my coffee house,” Rick remembers. “I stopped in for at least two meals a day for probably more than 10 years.”
As manager, I took on too many jobs that I should have delegated and left after a few intense years. Pam and a third partner, Bill Walsh, changed the name to the Bluebird, and had to find a new location when the county bought and renovated the building. Eventually, all the original partners sold out, but the restaurant endured until 2009(?)