Lone Star BBQ
Chris Williams (left) came home to South Carolina in 2002 to run the Lone Star restaurant with his father, Pat.
When you step through the squeaky porch door at Lone Star Barbecue and Mercantile, prepare to step back in time.
Located on State Park Road near Santee, Lone Star is a rustic eatery cobbled together from four old country stores—each dating back to the mid- or late-1800s—that were relocated from nearby communities. Owner Pat Williams established the business to give folks a taste of the way life used to be, and when diners sit down at the sturdy, heart-pine tables, they are surrounded by shelves still stocked with clothing, shoes and farm implements from a bygone era.
“I was fascinated with old stores,” says Williams, who grew up on a farm in Springfield. “In their day, these stores were the hubs of civilization. That’s where you saw your friends and heard the news.” The kitchen, run by son Chris, serves up classic country dishes that are every bit as nostalgic as the surroundings. The buffet is piled high with steaming trays of vegetables (fresh and local whenever possible), hickory-smoked barbecue, crispy fried chicken, sweet-and-crunchy hush puppies and a tomato pie that instantly puts a satisfying tang in your mouth.
“We try to keep it as authentic as possible,” Chris Williams explains. “We’re very well known for our barbecue, but we’re almost as well known for our fried chicken, which is completely an original preparation. We don’t buy breading mix. We mix our own spices and add it to flour. It goes through quite a process before it comes out on the buffet line.”
The younger Williams can cook down-home favorites with the best of them, but he’s not exactly a homegrown chef. After graduating from The Citadel in 1990 and working in Charleston and Columbia restaurants, he entered the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
“I just fell in love with it,” he says of his craft.
After graduating from culinary school, Chris Williams honed his skills working in New York restaurants until 2002, when his father lured him home to run Lone Star. Since coming back, he has enjoyed reconnecting with his South Carolina roots and drawing on his training to surprise Lone Star customers with some unexpected additions to the popular Sunday buffet.
“Sometimes I’ll do something out of the box,” he says. “Lately, I’ve been having fun doing something French every Sunday.”
Another weekend specialty is bluegrass music. Live bands play every Saturday, and there’s a “pickin’ parlor” for amateur musicians on the first and third Fridays of the month. The restaurant also serves as the setting for annual Labor Day and Memorial Day bluegrass festivals, adding to the nostalgic vibe that defines the Lone Star, says Pat Williams.
“The locals love it,” he says. “The tourists find it culture shock, but they love it, too.”
LONE STAR TOMATO PIE
10 medium vine-ripe tomatoes, washed, cored and sliced
1 cup mayonnaise
1¼ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 onion, grated or minced fine
15 slices day-old white bread
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare cheese spread by combining mayonnaise, cheese and grated onion. Salt and pepper to taste. Grease a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish with butter or pan spray. Cut seven slices of bread into medium-sized cubes and layer bottom of pan evenly. Layer tomato slices, shingle style, over the bread, reserving the neatest slices. Trim crust from remaining eight bread slices and arrange on top of tomatoes. Cover the top layer of bread slices with a little more than half of the cheese mixture. Arrange remaining tomato slices in shingle style as before. Season again with salt and pepper. Dollop remaining cheese spread in rows across the top. Bake uncovered for 25 minutes or until cheese spread turns golden brown. Serve immediately.
“There’s nothing fancy about it. It’s just simple and tasty,” chef Chris Williams says of Lone Star Tomato Pie. Don’t scrimp on the main ingredient if you decide to make it at home. “Fresh, local tomatoes. That’s key.”