A Bite of the Old South
by Michael Booth
photo by Michie Turpin
WHEN ANNE & BILL’S RESTAURANT OPENED IN ITS NEW LOCATION A FEW YEARS AGO after being shut down for five months as they moved the operation, the parking lot was so packed that patrons were parking blocks away, the restaurant was so full of people demanding fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans that the kitchen was overwhelmed, even with six grill cooks working full time. You might think that kind of success would make owner Kathy Chafin deliriously happy.
“I cried for two weeks because I was so stressed. We had 56 tickets that day that we could not take care of. I was worried about not getting our customers satisfied,” she said recently at a back table in Forest Park’s legendary eatery just before the lunch crowd hit. “Generation after generation has eaten here regularly. We have such deep roots in this community. Historically, our customers come here with their parents and grandparents, who have regularly eaten here for years.”
Anne & Bill’s is the classic Southern restaurant serving only breakfast and lunch. As you might expect, even after checking out their extensive menu, the overwhelmingly favorite dishes are fried chicken, country-fried steak, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and John’s Vidalia Onion casserole. Add to that list Bill’s Famous Hot Dog, a perfectly cooked hot dog covered with fresh chili mixed with onions and a squirt of mustard. “Better than the Varsity’s,” Chafin boasts.
“We have people who come from out of town to eat here because they have heard we are one of the only true southern restaurants left. A lot of people just come for the sweet tea and our slow southern drawl,” she said in her unmistakable southern drawl.
One blogger who lives inside the perimeter in Atlanta claimed the drive to Anne & Bill’s is well worth it. “It is the best southern food you’ll find in the state,” said their blog. “The mac ‘n cheese was sinfully creamy and delicious.” Another blogger said the sweet tea is “so good I want some more now!” But after downing fried chicken, collards, mac ‘n cheese, and deviled eggs the blogger went on to write, “Now, I must definitely go for a run and unclog my arteries.”
One review from the Fat Woman in Atlanta website said Anne & Bill’s is “good, pure Southern cooking. Nothing fancy. Like your Southern Grandmother used to make. It’s real food and it’s real good.”
Kathy’s parents opened the restaurant on the Old Dixie Highway in 1974. Bill was an army cook who had started out in the business working at a Greek restaurant when he was 14. Anne ran the office side of the business until she passed away in 2005.
“Dad was always the cook. Mom did all the paper work. They were the perfect team. Well …” said Chafin, flashing a quick grin. “Well, Dad, he ran a tight ship. He was very hard on everyone who worked here.
Away from the restaurant Bill was a different person. He would always load up the kids in the car when he was going to market. But at the restaurant it was Bill’s way or the highway.
“Now he is as mellow as can be,” Chafin said of her father, nearing 90 and still coming into the restaurant almost every day. On the day this writer visited the restaurant a sign touted homemade ice cream “Homemade by Bill himself.” He doesn’t drive but his daughter still comes to him for advice.
“My Dad was a hard slave driver. I’m not like that. I like for everyone to get along,” said Chafin.
Almost on cue a waitress named Sonya Dalton stops by the table to say, “She is the best employer ever. If there is ever a problem she calls us into the office to discuss it.”
“Our employees are like family. Some of them have been here almost since we opened,” said Chafin.
And some of them are family. Cristie, her youngest daughter, runs the restaurant when Kathy is off. While her mom is self-taught in the kitchen Cristie actually went to culinary school for her food training.
“As kids we would sleep up under the biscuit table. We’d wake up with flour in our hair. And I remember we would take bottle caps and make small biscuits out of the dough. People loved those little biscuits,” said Cristie. “Basic Southern. What we do here is all old-fashioned but there are so many new rules.”
Her contribution to the menu is called Cristie’s Wrap: grilled chicken, cheese, jalapenos and salsa in a flour wrap.
Cristie’s time to run the restaurant is still somewhere in the future. Kathy said when she decided to take it over from her Dad she made a long time commitment.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in the restaurant business. I had worked in the restaurant since 1981. I had actually finished real estate school. Then my Dad came to me with a check he had been given for half a million dollars to sell the place. He told me, ‘If you don’t want to do this I’m going to cash this check.’ I thought about it for a while and then decided I would go ahead. He so wanted the legacy to live on.”
That was in 2001. The only change she made was allowing the use of credit cards. And there have been many times she wonders if she made the right choice. She was a cook, ordered all the food, made the menus, supervised the staff, and still had to go home to her kids. She married John Chafin that same year after an 11-year courtship. So suddenly she had a restaurant to run and a family to raise. She had four kids and he had three, and they had one more child together. Today they have eight grandkids as well.
Deborah Coogler, her sister, runs the register while another relative, Tracy Stone, is one of the ever-smiling waitresses. Come in at certain times and you are sure to see the wait staff being supplemented by Landon, 10, Zoey, 10, and Madi, 11, some of Kathy’s grandchildren who just love to help out in the restaurant.
“They’ll roll silverware and other things,” said Cristie, who started working at Anne & Bill’s when she was 15. “A lot of customers will call them out if they know they are here.”
Other than Christmas and Thanksgiving, Anne & Bill’s is open seven days a week for lunch and breakfast. Many customers request that they open for dinner as well, but Chafin resists that movement. “Some days we’re down 50 percent in customers. The economy hasn’t been great and with Fort Gillem closing it has made it a bit tougher. You used to come in here and see lots of military uniforms. And we’ve had a lot of customers who have passed. It really has been difficult.”
But Chafin does not let the slow economy stop her. She is planning on adding a Bakery to the restaurant to sell some of their famous desserts. And she would love to someday put in a To Go shop and maybe even a drive thru.
“As my Daddy used to tell me, ‘In trying times, keep trying.’ I’ve got to be dedicated,” she said. “I want it all just like Daddy started it.”