Carolina Lunch at the Dairy Bar
How a Darlington institution earned many names, but one identity
By Libby Wiersema, Photos by Ken Beebe
The Greeks. Carolina Lunch. Dairy Bar. No matter what you call it, the modest, but bustling operation at 318 S. Pearl Street is a titan among Darlington eateries. A history tightly stitched to the lives of those who call this town home has propelled this business (referred to herein as “Dairy Bar”) from the league of burger and hot dog joints to the realm of hometown icons. Indeed, beneath the hum of made-to-order fast-food commerce pulses something not only meaningful to patrons, but essential to the identity of a community. What else would you expect from a restaurant readily known by three distinct names?
“The Greeks” – of the trio, it’s the name that most aptly points to the restaurant’s roots. Christos “Gus” Demetrious was born in Greece and settled in Darlington in 1931. Though the Pee Dee was still reeling from the 1929 stock market crash, Darlington County was poised for brisk business and on its way to becoming one of the nation’s major tobacco markets. In warm weather months, farmers hauled their crops to town, and a fair-like energy buzzed in the air.
The weighing, stacking, and auctioning of all that Bright Leaf transformed the yawning interiors of tobacco warehouses into high-traffic hubs of buying and selling. It also worked up many an appetite. Like many Greek immigrants who settled in the region, Gus stepped in to help address that need by opening an eating establishment.
He transformed a space at the back of Price’s Warehouse on Broad Street into a spot where working folk could find fast, affordable, tasty sustenance. When he took a wife, Katina, in 1947, the couple settled into their new life and began planning a family. By then, Gus was a well-known entrepreneur in the community, where he invested long hours nurturing his enterprise officially dubbed “Carolina Lunch.”
The sweet bouquet of tobacco mingling with the smoky aroma of simmering chili – this was the signature perfume of Carolina Lunch. Not only did it tantalize the olfactory senses of patrons, but the smell lodged itself in the banks of their memories. To this day, tobacco and savory foods are as logical a pairing to many Darlingtonians as macaroni and cheese.
“Growing up on a farm and selling tobacco at the tobacco barns on Broad Street, you just had to pop by the Carolina Lunch to-go window for the goods – with the smell of fresh-cured tobacco in the background, of course,” said Linda Davis, who grew up on Carolina Lunch burgers and dogs washed down with an “ice-cold bottled Coke with a straw floating in the top.”
The convenience of a cheap grab-and-go lunch lured the working crowd, many of them employed with the nearby Individual Drinking Cup Company (later known as Dixie Cup) and Darlington Veneer Company. Those with more time and a heartier appetite could snag a booth inside for stick-to-your-ribs home-cooking. Some folks made a habit out of dropping in for a hot breakfast.
If you wanted a little conversation along with your chili dog, this was the place to go. But as with any successful enterprise, proprietors often seek to branch out a bit. In this instance, it was Katina who envisioned a sweet new addition. But her enthusiasm was met with some reservation by her husband. Darlington County Coroner Todd Hardee, owner of Kistler-Hardee Funeral Home and the restaurant, South of Pearl, provided some insight.
“Katina decided that, as a hobby, she would sell homemade custard at Carolina Lunch,” said Hardee, who is known around town as a wellspring of local lore and history. “She decided she’d come around there and be going to work with him every day. But he (Gus) decided that wasn’t the thing for him to do – to work with Ms. Katina every day. So, he went over to Pearl Street, right across from the funeral home, and built the Dairy Bar.”
It was a win-win. Katina got her wish to make frozen desserts and Gus averted the marital strains caused by too much spousal togetherness. Ironically, his plan to situate his wife in a separate operation would one day prove to be the saving grace for his own.
When the doors of the boxy little building opened in 1951, the locals eagerly turned up at 318 S. Pearl to sample Katina’s wares. She immersed herself in hand-churned custard, cranking out rich, melt-in-your-mouth ice cream. She soon had a hit on her hands and, like her husband, devoted long hours to her craft. By the mid-1950s, however, the demands of motherhood and civic interests led the industrious Katrina to significantly trim her hours at the custard shop.“Gus hired Mr. Tom Hamberis to run it, who later went on to have Cindy’s in Hartsville,” Hardee explained. “He made Dairy Bar into a drive-in more like 301 in Florence with hamburger steaks, shrimp, and fried chicken.”
The additions of drive-in canopies in the parking lot and car-hop service ushered in a new era of hometown hobnobbing. Dairy Bar was now an irresistible place to see and be seen, especially for the high school crowd. During high school football season, the tattoo of revelry often pounded the air, as if warning of the throngs that would soon descend upon the restaurant’s blacktop.
“Imagine hearing the drums of the marching band from the nearby football field – the beat of them and that rhythm just echoing all across town,” said St. John’s grad, Jeff Helton. He still relates those sounds to the vibe of those celebratory “Dairy Bar nights.”
The high-jinks and jubilation, peppered with a little inevitable teen drama, created a fertile ground for making memories. By all accounts, the Dairy Bar scene could have been called “Happy Days: The Darlington Edition.” St. John’s alumnus and host of WPDE TV 15’s “Carolina and Company”, Cecil Chandler, recognized it as the perfect place for cooking up a little teenage romance as well as burgers and fries.
“On Saturdays, the guys would go to look for a date,” he said. “Back then, if the girls had their hair rolled, they had a date for Saturday night, and I found a number of dates at the Dairy Bar.”
Impressing his friends with his car music system was a key part of his strategy.
“We would hang out, listening to music on our 8-track tape players or car record players – a lot of us had them back in the ’60s,” he mused. “I had one, and what was so cool about it was that all the cars would lineup side-by-side in the parking lot. If everybody put their radios on “8”, they could listen to my music. I don’t know how that worked, but it did.”
The 1970s brought a sudden end to all the fun, flirtations, and food, however, when Gus unceremoniously shut down the beloved hang-out. While the reason has been much speculated, Todd Hardee lays the blame on the Coker boys of Darlington – a harmless, but mischievous crew who had a penchant for “raising a little Cain” around the big oak tree in the back of the Dairy Bar. With the Demetrious residence just within earshot, problems inevitably arose.
“Mr. Demetrious’s bedroom was right there,” explained Hardee. “Eventually, he got tired of hearing them fighting and carrying on at night. So, he just closed it. And it stayed closed for years.”
The Coker boys sought out new oak trees for their rowdy meetups. The kids had to find a new place to cruise. Tom Hamberis was transferred to Carolina Lunch. As for Gus, he was finally getting a peaceful night’s sleep.
The Dairy Bar went dark, and when it did, a much-loved light went out in the community, too.
The Hot, Big Merger
The years passed and memories of those Dairy Bar days began to fade. The parking lot, its car bays empty beneath the canopies, found new usefulness as a prime spot for parade watching or as overflow parking for the funeral home and nearby churches.
But Carolina Lunch was still going strong at the warehouse, despite the gradual decline of the tobacco markets. In the 1980s, tobacco use had officially become a vice with scientifically proven health threats. Slowly but surely, the agrarian foundations of the Pee Dee crumbled and, like dust, seemed gone with the wind. It was a painful economic reality, but nothing that a couple of chili dogs or a heap of chili cheese fries couldn’t dull.
Katina and Gus’s son, Nicky, now a grown man, became a partner in the family business, mastering the top-secret chili recipe and the fine points of running a grill. Charming and well-liked in the community, he loved serving and chatting up the customers. Carolina Lunch was good medicine, and the role it played in Darlington culture solidified its standing as a culinary hotspot. Then, things got unexpectedly hotter. In 1988, Price’s Warehouse went up in flames.
“The tobacco warehouse burned, and it was a big deal – you could see it for miles – and ashes were falling in yards,” Hardee said of the spectacular scene, which is said to have smoldered for three days.
Chandler, who had embarked upon a journalism career, was sent to the site.
“I was the reporter that covered the story when the huge warehouse and Carolina Lunch burned,” he said. “We lost our local morning hang-out place and a great place to eat.”
The blaze that reduced the once-teeming warehouse into a scorched heap had swallowed Carolina Lunch. Nicky made plans to move on from the restaurant business and head to Greece. But his father wasn’t ready to let go of his baby – or his boy.
“‘Go ’round there, son, and get the Dairy Bar back up.’” Those were the orders Gus handed down to Nicky, according to Hardee.
Nicky’s plans for an early retirement were thwarted, Carolina Lunch moved into the old Dairy Bar, and father and son continued their fast-food legacy. That’s how “The Greeks,” “Carolina Lunch,” and “Dairy Bar” essentially became one-and-the-same.
Comings & Goings
The public’s affinity for those Carolina Lunch burgers, dogs, and fries translated into vigorous business at the new Pearl Street digs. The reinvented business burgeoned, thanks to the promise of the same service, warm welcome, and, perhaps most important, that signature chili. When the Southern 500 rolled into town, race fans and their famed, lead-footed idols showed up to consume mass quantities of chili-slathered eats.
In 1994, Gus retired, and Nicky took the helm. He recruited Darlington local and restaurant veteran, Charlie Weatherford, to come aboard and assist with operations. Like all good things, the perfect pairing of Nicky and Charlie had an expiration date, and it arrived quicker than either man had anticipated. A bout with cancer took the life of the affable Nicky in 2009, effectively leaving operations at Carolina Lunch in Weatherford’s capable hands.
“Probably the strangest day I’ve had was when we opened after Nicky passed away,” said Weatherford. “It was just really surreal because he meant so much to everybody in this town. People came here to see him rather than just eat.”
Weatherford’s nephew, Donnie Lynch, eventually came on full-time to help manage the restaurant. With the support of a small, but dedicated staff, which includes Weatherford’s wife, Denise, the duo admirably keeps the rhythmic pace at Carolina Lunch. Gus and Katina, who have both since passed away, would surely approve.
“I consider us kind of the caretakers of the history they left,” said Weatherford. “As far as I’m concerned, the Demetrious family still owns this place.”
Maintaining a Local Legacy
Weatherford and Lynch have made it their mission to deliver the same customer experience that made the original Carolina Lunch so successful. And continuity is what attracts life-long customer Doug Fraser, a St. John’s grad, professional videographer, and staunch fan of the hot dogs.
“Dairy Bar knows how to do it properly,” he said. “Mustard goes on the bun first. Second, the wiener. Third, the onions, and fourth and final, the chili. The chili seals all the ingredients in so they don’t fall out everywhere.”
In the Carolina Lunch tradition, the day begins when Weatherford arrives before sun-up. Before the grits, sausage, eggs, and other breakfast staples are ready, the first round of customers is invited inside to await the 6 a.m. opening. Hamburgers and hot dogs are on the grill, too, and the chili pot is simmering.
“Only me and Donnie know how to make it,” Weatherford said of the Demetrious family’s formula. “People call all the time wanting the recipe and some even say Gus willed it to them. So, I’ll just start making stuff up, but never tell them all the ingredients.”
But upholding the restaurant’s familiar aesthetic involves more than following original recipes.
“Food is a byproduct of coming here,” said Weatherford. “A lot of people don’t come just because of the food, but to talk to somebody or socialize. Some say we’re the only ones they talk to all day.”
Other things that remain steady at this current incarnation of Carolina Lunch is the “no card” payment policy (cash and checks only, please) and the curious habit of ensuring the clocks are set, well, inaccurately.
“Nicky always set the clock 8 minutes fast,” revealed Weatherford. “I’m not sure why, but we’ve kept it that way.”
And what about the names: The Greeks, Carolina Lunch, Dairy Bar, and, more recently added to the mix, Nicky’s Place? While a resolution is not likely, rest assured the people of Darlington know this restaurant’s identity is reflected in them all.
“The sign out front says, ‘Dairy Bar,’ but the order tickets say, ‘Carolina Lunch’ – which is technically what we are,” said Weatherford. “But it doesn’t really matter what name you call us. We answer to all of them.”