A downturn in the real estate market inspired agent Betsy Simons to turn a neglected eyesore in downtown Aiken into a charming retro diner.
Betsy Simons' new restaurant was way too popular on opening day last year.
After six months of renovating a downtown Aiken eyesore on the corner of Laurens and Barnwell streets, Simons planned to ease into business with a “soft opening”—no advertising. But locals who had watched the underloved building transform into a quaint retro diner were anxious to get inside.
A line stretched out the door and down the sidewalk, maxing out the indoor seating and outdoor café tables. The crush blew the electrical circuits, forcing some restless diners to wait nearly two hours for their food, and obliged Simons to rewire her entire kitchen.
“It was awful, awful, awful,” Simons remembers. “I sat down and boo-hooed for three hours.”
One year later, Betsy’s on the Corner is still attracting attention. In January, Historic Aiken Foundation gave Simons an architectural preservation award for her eye-catching renovation. Crowds still line up for made-from-scratch comfort foods, especially the chicken and dumplings, even though that’s not on the menu. Friends have loved her family recipe for years; now diner regulars just know to ask for it.
“I’ll do whatever you want, if we’ve got the food—it doesn’t have to be on the menu,” says Simons, a professed foodie.
Simons’ road to running a diner took quite a few turns. A Saluda native, she was a soda jerk at a local snack bar as a teen. She later worked as a home economist with Clemson Extension and Aiken Electric Cooperative. She owned a children’s clothing and toy store, then became a real estate agent. Meanwhile, friends kept encouraging her to open a restaurant.
“And I kept saying, ‘I am not that stupid,’” Simons recalls.
But when the economy flattened the real estate market, Simons reconsidered. She had fond memories of her soda jerk days and of indulging in good eats while perched on a barstool at the old Tapp’s lunch counter in Columbia. An old-fashioned diner and ice cream counter, she reasoned, might resonate with older folks and charm the younger crowd.
The nostalgic atmosphere at Betsy’s conjures the ’50s and ’60s—red Formica tabletops, terrazzo floor, pressed-tin ceiling, sturdy enamel dinnerware, contoured Coke glasses and a bell in the kitchen window that dings when orders are up.
“It’s noisy, it’s busy—but you know, that’s what a diner is,” Simons says. “It’s a fun place.”
Alongside classic burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches and salads are Simons’ twists—grilled cheese with bacon and apple slices; caprese with gouda, avocado and basil mayo; blue-plate specials “with a Southern flair” on Wednesdays; and two freshly made soups a day, one vegetarian.
Fountain treats span the decades—egg creams, phosphates, ice cream floats and malts share the menu with modern smoothies and candy-covered sundaes.
The most popular non-food items sold at Betsy’s are the T-shirts worn by wait staff. “I work this corner” is the slogan on the back, drawing occasional honks from passing drivers for the servers at outdoor tables.
“So many people wanted one, we started selling them,” Simons says. “Our best customers are little old ladies. They think it’s a hoot.”
Grandma’s Chicken ’n’ Dumplin’s
1 whole fryer chicken
1 medium onion, quartered
2 carrots, sliced
2 stalks celery
Salt to taste
3 cups self-rising flour
1½ to 2 cups chicken broth
½ stick butter
1 cup milk
Pepper to taste
Hard-cooked eggs, sliced (optional)
Place chicken, onion, carrots and celery in large pot. Cover with water, add salt and cook until chicken is “fall off the bone” tender. Remove from broth; when cool, debone. Strain broth and discard vegetables. Set broth and chicken aside. Mix flour and enough chicken broth to make soft dough. Divide into manageable portions. Knead each portion until not sticky. Roll out flat on floured board and cut into strips, approximately 1 inch square. Toss strips in flour as they are cut and set aside. Bring remaining broth to rolling boil. Drop dough strips into broth and cook until done, about 15 minutes. Add deboned chicken, butter and milk. Stir in eggs, if desired. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let simmer another 15 minutes. Add water or milk to adjust consistency to your liking.