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Meat & Three: Find Southern Tradition on Menus Across South Carolina

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Homestyle cooking, hearty helpings and plenty of hospitality—that’s what’s on the menu at meat-and-three restaurants.

Homestyle cooking, hearty helpings and plenty of hospitality—that’s what’s on the menu at meat-and-three restaurants. A South Carolina tradition, these modest eateries are hubs of community hobnobbery, where locals go to fill their bellies, swig sweet tea and engage in friendly chitchat.

On any given day, you might find meatloaf, fried chicken, baked ham, stew beef, pork chops or fried fish in the lineup. A savory kaleidoscope of vegetable dishes is a given, too: collard greens, fried okra, mashed potatoes, field peas, string beans, sweet potato casserole, squash fritters and stewed tomatoes are common offerings, as are the honorary duos of rice and gravy and macaroni and cheese, both considered “vegetables” by Southern standards.  

The concept is simple: Order the meat of your choice, then fill out your plate with three sides. Add a homemade biscuit or wedge of cornbread and a glass of sweet tea. Snag a helping of banana pudding, peach cobbler or whatever the dessert of the day happens to be, then settle down to a meal that will transport you back to the days of Sunday dinner at grandma’s house.

 

 

Big Mike’s Soul Food, Myrtle Beach

The name of this bustling meat-and-three is your first clue that hearty meals are served here. Owner “Big Mike” Chestnut intended it that way. These are vittles done right, just the way he likes them, and the masses agree. Whereas seasonal closings are the nature of the restaurant beast in coastal destinations like Myrtle Beach, Big Mike’s is an exception to the rule.

“We have plenty of local regulars, but it always amazes me how many tourists are regulars, too,” says Mike, who rightfully could be called “Busy Mike” as he also serves as a church deacon, Realtor and Myrtle Beach city councilman. “People from all across the country come here for vacation and tell me that a visit to Big Mike’s is something they look forward to each year. There isn’t a time when we aren’t busy.”

The menu runs the gamut of Southern favorites and the servings are substantial. Pork chops the size of hawk wings are a favorite, as is the expertly fried chicken. Mike is particularly proud of his collard greens, though. If you’re a fan or just collard-curious, don’t miss this signature dish when you build your plate.

“We cook them fresh daily—no frozen greens here,” Mike said with pride. “If we run out, we’re in trouble.

But there’s more to the dishes at Big Mike’s, namely, two ingredients you won’t find on the menu. “Soul and love—we put it in everything, and you can taste it,” said Mike. “This is soul food the way your mama made it.”

 

 

Workmen’s Café, James Island

When a 14-year-old Angie Bellinger asked her mother to teach her how to cook, the thought of one day using that skill to serve a hungry workforce never crossed her mind. But years later, when mama decided to open a café, it was Angie who stepped up to lead the kitchen and calm the daily hunger pangs of the blue-collar crowd.

In 2001, the aptly named Workmen’s Café served its first bowl of lima beans—a simple dish studded with pork, but one that put the no-frills meat-and-three on the map for its authentic soul-food treatment and stick-to-your-ribs consistency. Add macaroni and cheese, collard greens, a fried pork chop and a fist-sized biscuit, and you’ve got one of the most filling and authentic Lowcountry meals around.

“Some days, I’ll cook meatloaf with gravy, and there’s always fried chicken, too,” said Angie, a one-woman show who carries on her late mother’s vision of serving satisfying, made-from-scratch Southern cuisine. “But the lima beans are a must for everybody. My mother taught me to make them, though it took me a little while to get them right.”

Just like mama, she doesn’t measure or use recipes, relying instead on her kitchen instincts when it comes to whipping up a batch of banana pudding, beef stew or biscuit dough. The results are impressively consistent, as is her penchant for using ingredients that reflect the area’s bounty.

“I grew up in Charleston eating the foods that were grown here and the seafood, too, so that’s what I know best,” said Angie, who earned a master’s degree in photography before settling on the restaurant business.

Her stellar reputation for home cooking has earned her the allegiance of the white-collar crowd, too. But the majority of customers are everyday wage earners who count on Angie for delicious, comforting sustenance at an affordable price.

“My mother chose the name of this place for a reason,” she said. “The Lord told her to feed the working man, and that’s what I plan to continue doing.”

 

 

OJ’s Diner, Greenville & Easley

By all accounts, OJ’s Diner should be a memory. When the Johnson family took the reins of the long-standing McBee’s Diner in 2005, not only did they have no experience running a restaurant, but they didn’t have the funds to buy the business.

“Mrs. McBee gave us the opportunity to take over the diner and make it our own,” said Greg Johnson. “She told my mother we could pay her when we started making money. Beginnings don’t get much humbler than that.”

A warm family atmosphere coupled with a knack for turning out skillfully prepared comfort foods helped get the cash flowing, propelling the eatery from iffy enterprise to bustling haven of home-cookery. A second location opened in Easley in 2012, further solidifying OJ’s place as a community meat-and-three institution.

“Our first objective was to cook genuine Southern cuisine,” said Greg, who operates OJ’s along with his mother, Lonita, and uncle, Olin, whose initials inspired the diner’s name. “We did that, and everything else took care of itself.”

The aromas of the day’s offerings waft up from the steam table to greet hungry customers. Fresh-from-the-fryer chicken, grilled pork chops, turkey with dressing, country fried steak, savory ribs and melt-in-your-mouth meatloaf are some of the entrées you can build a meat-and-three plate around. Cabbage, green beans, sweet potato soufflé, mashed potatoes, lima beans, the ever-popular macaroni and cheese and other sides add a “Sunday dinner” touch. As diners pay up at the counter, they are often greeted by name—a sure sign that OJ’s is more than just a restaurant.

“People love this place because it reminds them of home,” said Greg. “We attract people from all backgrounds and walks of life, and they all have something in common: the need for a great meal in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere.”

 

 

Cahill’s Market, Bluffton

Farm-to-table aficionados head to Cahill’s Market for a meat-and-three experience built around the day’s harvest. This family-run operation is one of the most inviting around, drawing diners who dream of a quintessential Southern supper. Before you snag a table in the barn’s down-home dining room, take a stroll around the grounds and see where the eggs are laid, veggies grown and livestock raised. Almost everything on your plate is something gleaned from these grounds, tended with no chemicals and plenty of loving care by siblings John, Debra and Mike Cahill.

“Our customers come from all walks of life,” said John, who does a lot of the cooking. “We have Southerners who crave cooking like their mama’s or grandmama’s. We have Northerners who expect that this is how you are supposed to eat when you come down South. We also have a lot of whippersnappers who are in training to eat like their ancestors.”

There’s a touch of whimsy about the place, which has a country store filled with vintage farm bric-a-brac, baskets of fresh vegetables and pots of colorful flowers. This is where you’ll pay for lunch, which brings us back to the heartbeat of the quaint enterprise: the café, known fondly as the “Chicken Kitchen.”

“When the idea for our restaurant was conceived, I had an outdoor kitchen that was next to my chicken coop,” explained John. “Ironically, the ‘Chicken Kitchen’ name was born, and we do serve a lot of chicken dishes!”

Fried chicken, barbecued chicken, baked chicken, grilled chicken, fried chicken gizzards and chicken-fried chicken steak with sawmill gravy—the yardbird is to Cahill’s as shrimp is to Bubba Gump’s. That said, the meatloaf gets its fair share of praise, as do the pork chops. When it comes to sides, the freshness factor is so high they are worthy to take center stage on any plate: squash casserole, field peas, okra and tomatoes, red rice, creamed corn and sliced South Carolina peaches make regular appearances on the rotating seasonal menu. Ultimately, partaking of a meal at Cahill’s is an immersive experience that harkens back to the good ol’ days when humans were intimately connected with their food and each other.

“Native Southerners know that mealtime is about family,” said John. “In our technologically advanced and increasingly complex lives, eating with the family is time to catch up with the day’s activities and make plans whilst tantalizing our taste buds and satisfying our hunger for more than just food.”

 

 

Lizard’s Thicket, Columbia Area & Florence

Lizard’s Thicket is easily the king of meat-and-threes in South Carolina. The first Columbia location opened in a modest house on Broad River Road in 1977—a time when women were opting for careers outside the home and joining the workforce in droves. Anna and Bob Williams recognized a growing need for convenient, home-cooked meals and, armed with family recipes, began serving meat-and-vegetable plates to fill the gap.

With 15 locations (14 in the Columbia area and one in Florence), and second and third generations of Williamses overseeing the business, this mom-and-pop operation is as much a part of local culture as Gamecock football and the South Carolina State Fair.

“Whether we’re serving a regular customer or a first-time visitor to Lizard’s Thicket, our family takes such pride in being able to serve delicious meals in this community for so long,” said CEO Bobby Williams, son of Bob and Anna, who have both moved on to the great Southern kitchen in the sky. “We treat our restaurants as an extension of our homes. We invite you to make yourself comfortable.”

And, there’s a whole lot of folks seeking comfort on a plate. With an estimated 14,000 diners carrying out or dining in at Lizard’s Thicket locations each day, the Williamses can easily measure their success in the high demand for their home-style meals.

“We’re known for our fried chicken—of course, it’s our top seller,” said Bobby. “Baked chicken is our second most popular order. Comfort foods like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and squash casserole are best sellers along with many of the sides on our famous menu boards.”

You’ll find the same homey atmosphere in today’s Lizard’s Thickets as the first customers did more than 40 years ago, right down to the chalkboard menu.

“We are so proud to be a place that diners keep coming back to for generations,” said Bobby. “We really mean it when we say ‘Y’all come back!’” 

 

Find more meat-and-threes along the SC BBQ Trail.

 

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.