A half-century of Southern goodness
By CLAIR DELUNE Photos by SALLY SCOTT
Let’s just say that, for this food writer, Shealy’s isn’t the only reason to make the drive to Batesburg-Leesville from Columbia; however, it is a very good one.
On the outskirts of B-L, there is a devastatingly beautiful, but far-too-sassy, four-legged, hoofed, “red-headed” equine who prefers barn life to living in my city backyard – and the city prefers he be in the country, too. I’m the only one who differs in that opinion and, sadly… I lose.
But how can I lose when it gives me regular opportunities to do what all born-and-bred Southerners love to do? And that, by the way, is eat genuine (cooked forever and then pulled off the bone) pork barbecue and all the trimmings at the much-lauded institution of gastro-bliss that is Shealy’s.
For a smidgen less than fifty years, “Miz Shealy,” along with her kin and crew have prepared the very best in original “downhome” barbecue. They keep the prices low, the array of offerings immense – they need more than one room to display them all – and the servings unlimited. For a buck or two more than the average “meat and three” restaurant charges, you get two rooms of as much food as you can manage to eat without embarrassing yourself. Your drink is included, so it might actually be cheaper if you don’t drink water. If you do drink water instead of “swee’tea” or “Co-Cola” with barbecue, please take your Southern temperature. You might be a Yankee. That’s okay, y’all. You just passed up a free drink is all.
Decades ago, this “nigh-on-Yankee” from Northern Virginia was invited to go to lunch with a group of colleagues while I worked at my first professional job in South Carolina. We drove for an hour, and landed at Shealy’s. The ringleader of the group was named Shealy so I thought she must be drumming up patrons for her family business (turns out there was no relation, she just had great taste). At that time, the venue offered outdoor-style seating in a large, screened, open-air shed with a tin roof. It could not have been more of an appropriate introduction to the Deep South for me. I’d never had barbecue before, boasting possession of the world championship belt for “pickiest eater,” according to my mother (who was the arbiter of such things).
So, barbecue did not have the least bit of “squeal appeal” for me. However, despite my trepidation, I gingerly selected a few items.
A few bites later, I was addicted and went back for more. They serve much more than this, but my favorites (then and now) include their pulled pork with vinegar-pepper or mustard sauce (how is it possible to love both, purists must wonder, but I don’t judge), crispy fried chicken, unbelievably tiny baby lima beans, field peas, baked beans, rice and gravy, creamed corn, simultaneously crispy and creamy macaroni and cheese, dressing, sweet potato soufflé, string beans with sidemeat, and slaw. Their buttery rolls are great if you still have room.
Then it is off to the dessert room for cake and soft-serve ice cream. Sorry, not sorry. Please be aware that it is not only acceptable etiquette to pat your tummy, nod and smile at other patrons on your way to assault the dessert bar – I call it the Shealy’s Strut – but it is considered a point of pride in country gustatory circles.
Long ago, I held the mistaken impression that all barbecue places must be like Shealy’s, but learned after a few trials elsewhere there is great barbecue and “possibly adequate” barbecue. Sadly, I have eaten in one upscale, but intolerable place that served downright awful ’cue at an indefensibly steep price. I shuddered and put that whole ugly incident behind me.
“There is a lot of competition these days,” said Shealy’s manager, Al Zimmer, who has worked there 11 years.
Much of the competition puts out a wonderful product, too, but through the years, I have learned why people happily make that 30-45 minute drive to Shealy’s.
“Consistency is the key,” Zimmer said. “We serve a great product, but what I find amazing is getting to know the people, watching the families grow, and being a part of the evolution of people’s lives.”
“It’s a social spot,” Zimmer said. “It’s the epitome of country life. We serve a good country meal, do our best to keep the costs down and we insist on the freshest ingredients.”
Changes over the years have included improvements to the building; addition of a side entrance section for take-out to speed up service for those who want to “swing and bring” that good Shealy’s barbecue home or to an event; a separate venue on Pond Branch Road between B-L and I-20 called T&S Farms, which is available for weddings or other events; and catering.
The business keeps Zimmer hopping.
“The restaurant is open every day but Sundays and Wednesdays,” he said. “For dinner, it is $13.35 including tax, drink, salad and desert bar; lunch is $11.24; and we offer “Economic Stimulus Mondays” at $9.90 for adults, while children six and under eat free.
“Don’t miss our Country Breakfast on Saturdays from 7-9:30 a.m.; and Tuesday nights, in addition to our usual favorites such as pulled pork, fried chicken livers, creamed corn and lima beans, we serve fish, shrimp, grits, fries, hush puppies and catfish stew,” he said. “If you are in a hurry, you can pick up a sandwich or a meal to take home.”
340 E Columbia Ave, Batesburg-Leesville