Billie Van Dyke’s life in the restaurant business has been a bit like riding a roller-coaster.
It is not just ups and downs. The ups have been at the mountaintop and the downs have been about as low as you can go.
Billie is the owner of the Blue Willow Inn, a rather famous eatery in my hometown of Social Circle.
I’ve known Miss Billie when she started out in a little house on the other side of town. Social Circle is not that big, so we’re only talking a few blocks south. She also ran the dining room at the American Legion post in Monroe.
Somewhere along the way, she acquired what was known as the Bertha Upshaw house.
When I was a boy, the Upshaw place was a community center where folks had meetings of ladies’ groups and held wedding receptions. It is a stately, two-story yellow brick house with grand columns and a large front porch. If you were looking for the proper setting for Southern food, this place had the right stuff.
Billie and her husband, Louis, invested all they had in the Blue Willow and it wasn’t going well. Enter Lewis Grizzard.
Grizzard was in Social Circle in 1992 to photograph a book cover. Grizzard was the popular columnist for The Atlanta Constitution. His column was syndicated in newspapers all over the place.
Someone suggested he eat lunch at the Blue Willow. He was smitten by the fried green tomatoes served up and wrote a column about it. He wasn’t a food critic but his wonderful words whet the appetites of folks all over the place.
Suddenly, a line of folks was waiting outside the Blue Willow, many of them clutching a clipping of the newspaper column.
A few years later, when the Grizzard column was history, Southern Living magazine did a story about the Blue Willow. The restaurant was the winner of their Reader’s Choice award for several years.
A few years ago, Billie and Louis decided to build a shopping village with quaint stores behind the great house. All was going well and then, the economy tanked. In 2010, the Van Dykes filed for bankruptcy protection. A couple of months later, Louis died.
Miss Billie carried on. With a little guidance and a lot of prayers, she emerged from bankruptcy. She is 78 and is committed to continuing the success of the Blue Willow.
When word of the bankruptcy got out, a lot of folks thought it was closed. It is open and the food is as wonderful as ever. You’ll still find plenty of fried green tomatoes and fried chicken and peach cobbler at lunch or dinner.
If you make a trip there, you’ll likely find Miss Billie sitting in the entrance hall with a twinkle in her eye as her great eatery continues to grow.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.