DILLARD, Ga. -- This tiny river-valley town in the Blue Ridge Mountains is about as country as it gets. Hereabouts, there’s a batch of biscuits in every oven, a pot of greens on every stovetop and a vegetable garden in every yard.
Dillard, named after the area’s founding family, sits unperturbed in a tourist mecca of state parks, national forests and recreation galore — horseback riding and treetop zip-lining, river rafting, fishing and hiking. Waterfalls are abundant, wine tasting is catching on, and upscale shopping is over yonder in Highlands, N.C. In the fall, leaf-peepers converge in swarms.
The real go-to, though, is Dillard House, where hungry diners have gathered for decades to feast on down-home Southern cooking served family-style. Meaning: Help yourself to heaping bowls and platters of farm-fresh fare that crowd the table.
“More than 200,000 people a year come through here,“ said owner John Dillard Sr., sitting in a rocking chair on the flagstone porch of Rock House, the original boardinghouse and dining room.
Nearby on the 200-acre property is the much-larger main dining hall from the 1950s with a high ceiling, knotty pine, rock walls and picture windows overlooking forest-covered hills. The compound is in a grove of oak, maple, pecan and spruce trees. It echoes with birdsong.
“We do food real simple and wholesome,” Dillard said. “It’s not the type of New South (cooking) you find in Southern Living magazine. It’s basic.”
“People from all over the world visit us, and we ship our products (country hams, relishes, stone-ground grits) around the U.S. and into Canada,” said his daughter, Natalie Dillard-Cross.
Dillard-Cross and her brother, John Dillard Jr., and their mother, Louise Dillard, help run the family business.
In the massive kitchen, a dozen or so cooks and crew members turn out a staggering array of meat and chicken dishes and seasonal vegetable-centric specialties based on recipes from family members and Dillard House chefs over the decades. Clearly, tradition rules.
Dillard House has won multiple awards and appeared on best-of lists in regional and national travel and food magazines and newspapers.
We saw and tasted why when we sat down to lunch. The fried chicken is special — crisp-tender, mildly seasoned and fresh-tasting.
The country ham is hand-rubbed with spices, cured, sliced and fried in bacon grease, coffee and brown sugar in a black-iron skillet. “(Those ingredients) improve the flavor and make it tender,” Dillard said.
On the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” celebrity chef Alton Brown called the Dillard House country ham “the star on the Christmas tree. It’s fruity, spicy, nutty and buttery, with a primal sweetness. And — heck yes! — salty.”
Also on the menu the day we visited were cantaloupe, coleslaw, bean salad, acorn squash souffle, cabbage casserole, baked Vidalia onions, green beans, baked zucchini, butter peas, lima beans, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and gravy, Brunswick stew, pulled pork, pork chops, barbecued chicken, biscuits, yeast rolls, cornbread and six desserts, including strawberry cobbler and buttermilk pie. Oh, and Mason jars filled with iced sweet tea.
Uniformed servers deliver the entire cornucopia to the table, all of it at once. Seriously.
Dillard House has been all about Southern hospitality and big food since Dillard’s paternal grandparents, Carrie and Arthur Dillard, opened a boardinghouse in 1917.
“Miss Carrie” made Sunday dinners for their boarders, sourcing the produce from her garden, and meats and chicken from family-raised livestock. The centerpiece of her original kitchen was two wood-burning stoves.
Word about her cooking soon spread, and folks from as far away as Atlanta made the trek for the legendary spreads. The operation gradually expanded to include breakfast and lunch daily, and Miss Carrie and her helpers found themselves turning out hundreds of meals every day.
“They finally had to build a larger dining room to accommodate the public,” Dillard said. “It took away some of the charm (of the original dining room), but enabled a lot more people to experience the meals here.”
The concept remains the same today, but the volume has become incredible.
“We’ve been doing (farm-to-table) since before it was cool to do so,” said Dillard, who grew up on the property. “I remember as a boy, we’d pick ears of corn and drop them into pots of boiling water in the kitchen, right before we served them for supper. In those days we had about 700 acres (planted in produce).”
These days, Dillard House sources seasonal produce and most meats and chicken from local farmers and at the sprawling farmers market in Atlanta. There’s even a seafood night on Fridays.
“We age our country hams, make our own sausages and process all the meats (we buy),” Dillard said.
About that fried chicken. … “The thing my grandmother did with it was use self-rising flour, which gives it a nice, flaky crust,” Dillard said.
“She had the benefit of doing some understudy work with some French people in Horse Cove (N.C.), and learned some things about cooking that most mountain people didn’t know, such as using herbs,” Dillard said. “She grew things in her garden you wouldn’t ordinarily see around these parts, like asparagus and raspberries.”
Family history and storytelling are very much a part of the Dillard House dynamic. Vintage photos are displayed throughout the restaurant and overflowing gift shop, and the family story and local lore are well told in “The Dillard House Cookbook and Mountain Guide” (Taylor Trade Publishing, $22.50, 224 pages).
Getting up from his rocker and moving on to his daily chores, Dillard paused to recall one more tale.
“I reckon it was in the 1920s, and my grandmother was out here one day, right in front of this porch,” he said. “Three guys drove up the dirt road and stopped right over there. Their car was overheating. She gave them some water to drink and got some water for the car.
“They said they were on their way to Asheville (N.C.) and decided to stay the night here,” he said. “Turned out they were Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, (tire magnate) Harvey Firestone and (Coca Cola Co. President) Robert Woodruff. Now, that was somethin’.”
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe