Darlington's racetrack might be the speediest gig in this small Southern town, but South of Pearl is a close second. Reservations at this historic home-turned-restaurant, only open to the public on Thursday nights, go faster than a stock car on qualifying day. Locals love the place, so full tables are the rule rather than the exception. You can have what they're having, but you'll need to pick up the phone well in advance to secure your table.
This authentic taste of Darlington culture, history and agricultural products is found on Edwards Avenue, one block south of Pearl Street in the heart of the Downtown Historic District. The dining experience is one part planning, one part socializing, one part history and one part good eating. Make a reservation, then arrive ahead of time to sit a spell in the rockers on the inviting front porch. Chances are you'll be chatted up by locals as well as the proprietor, Todd Hardee, a native Darlingtonian who's best known in these parts as the city's coroner. You might notice him walking over from the funeral home next door, but it's all good. Hardee owns that business, too.
"The location's convenient, but I wanted this house because it's a part of Darlington's roots," he said. "It was a terrible mess, though. We did a lot of work but kept anything that wasn't rotten. So a lot of what you see, from bricks to doors, is original to the house."
The rest of the week, the house is used for private functions, such as wedding receptions. Hardee decided to make the place a restaurant on Thursdays at the suggestion of a friend.
"Everybody knows how much I love food," he said. "It just seemed like something fun to do and a good way to support our local farms and businesses, while sharing some Darlington history."
Local art on the walls reflects the town and its people. When you are seated in one of the cozy dining rooms, glance up the staircase to the second floor. That's where novelist and SC Hall of Fame inductee Elizabeth Boatwright Coker was born in 1909. Her brother, Purvis James Boatwright, was the maternal grandfather of rocker Edwin McCain, who visited the home throughout his childhood.
Darlington roots are the foundation of the menu, too. South of Pearl's kitchen heavily relies on agricultural foods sourced from the Pee Dee region. Offerings change weekly according to what's available, so on any given Thursday you might enjoy Thad Weinberg's sausage, Carolina Plantation aromatic rice, potatoes from the James and Arnold farms, Indian Branch collards and Dargan Farms strawberries, all products of Darlington County.
Chef Trey Calcutt takes pride in his scratch-made offerings, some of which are interpretations of time-honored local recipes. On each table is a freshly printed lineup of the night's menu, typically a couple of appetizers, two to three entrees with a handful of sides to complement, and homemade dessert. You might want to skip lunch to make room for dinner as food is generously plated. Think grilled rib-eye that nearly hangs off the plate or crispy flounder as big as the sole of the Jolly Green Giant's boot.
Some nights are infused with live music, which adds to the relaxing ambiance. Get laid back with a glass of wine from a small but thoughtfully comprised list, or order a cocktail from the South of Pearl bar, a favorite being bourbon and cola served with a pack of peanuts. Not sure what to do with those peanuts? Just do as the locals do - open it up and spike your drink for a quintessential Southern treat.