Editor’s Note: The past year has been an historically challenging one for restaurants everywhere, in rural and non-rural places alike. As diners begin returning to the table, the Daily Yonder is spotlighting chefs and restaurateurs who are lifting up rural food traditions and creating vital community spaces across rural America. If you know of a person or place worth featuring, email us or let us know using the form at the bottom of this article.
Even though Eatery at the Depot is in the small town of Branchville, South Carolina (population 1,000), dinner guests might have to wait in line for one of the restaurant’s 60 seats if they didn’t plan ahead and make reservations.
Three-fourths of the Eatery’s business is from out of town, many from major cities like Columbia and Charleston, which are over 60 miles away. Pretty impressive for a place that doesn’t really advertise and maintains a reluctant social media presence.
Part of the Eatery’s success is due to the entire experience. Branchville’s claim to fame is the oldest railroad junction in the United States. The “Best Friend” locomotive came through as it ran between Charleston and Augusta in the heyday of rail travel, and the town was a regional hub with almost 100 railroad buildings. Today, the museum adjacent to the Eatery is dedicated to railroad memorabilia.
The 1858-era building has always been a restaurant, and Presidents Taft and McKinley were reported to have dined there. Recently, it was restored to its original glory with wood floors, beadboard walls, and an inlaid ceiling. This year, the Eatery at the Depot celebrated 17 years of serving American food, its own chapter in the building’s storied history.
One of the thrilling parts of eating here is that it’s true rail side dining: you can feel the thunder and heat from the evening train as it rumbles through. According to Chef Norris Jarrett, the dining room’s proximity to the tracks elicits laughs, gasps, even screams, from patrons. The former passenger lines now carry BMW’s from the factory in Spartanburg to the port in Charleston.
Family Recipes and Favorite Comfort Foods
People wouldn’t drive 120 miles if the food wasn’t good. Almost everything at the Eatery is homemade, often from family recipes, like garlic cheese mashed potatoes, red rice, and squash casserole. The menu includes beef and pork tenderloin, with a special nod to Charleston-inspired seafood dishes. Think shrimp and grits, fried grouper, and crab dip.
This is comfort food. One particular favorite of the locals is ritz cracker pie.“The secret is lots of homemade whipped cream—which would make a dead dog taste good, as my grandmother used to say,” said Jarret.
Norris Jarrett and his wife Kyra Jarrett are the joint force behind Eatery at the Depot. Through their years of restaurant experience and a good amount of hard work, they have found a dining sweet spot. Diners get tasty, reasonably-priced food and a singular experience. Meanwhile, the community gets a popular draw for visitors, and a regional asset.
The Jarretts met doing restaurant work in Charleston 34 years ago. When they moved back to Kyra’s hometown of Branchville, they wanted a place to sit down and dine close by (the nearest option was over half an hour away). They guessed others might, too, so they opened the Eatery.
“I grew up in a family where all we did was cook and eat and talk about what we were going to cook and eat next,” says Norris Jarrett. He previously worked in eight different restaurants, from fine dining to Mexican. The Eatery is his first venture in the role of owner and head chef.
Secrets to Success
When asked what the key to the Eatery’s success is, Jarrett says simply, “We are here.” He means they are consistent. He has been called a dinosaur because his finger is in all the pies (and the steaks, too) at the restaurant. He orders the food, he receives the order, he cooks the food, and he plates it. Diners see him in the kitchen every time they are at the Eatery.
Jarret can do that because they are only open three evenings a week: Thursday-Saturday, 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m. “We had worked in restaurants that served three meals a day, seven days a week,” Jarrett said of their limited hours. “We knew we didn’t want to work ourselves to death.”
Beyond providing for their family, they see the business as an asset for the community.
Because of the evening schedule, their staff can work at the Eatery in addition to doing school or another job. “It is so rewarding watching young people that come to work for us. Some have never had a job besides babysitting, and after a few nights they really come out of their shell,” said Jarret.
The Eatery is an important step in the development of these young people, and Jarrett loves to have them return and share their successes: children, college degrees, careers. “When they stop by and we talk and laugh together, that’s the good stuff,” he says.
To weather the last year and a half, the Eatery switched to carry-out service like many restaurants. It was overwhelming at first. Their establishment is proudly old school so they don’t have online ordering. Instead they relied on phone orders. “It wasn’t fun. We couldn’t see people enjoying the food and it was so quiet,” said Jarrett. “But we were surprised about how much food we were able to pump out the side window.”
Along with dinner service, the Eatery has found a catering niche, and the Jarretts are hopeful about another project brewing in the community: The historic freight depot next door is under renovation to become an event space. Jarrett anticipates that interest in the community will continue to and grow when another restored historic building can welcome people to Branchville.
Thanks to Daily Yonder reader Darra Balance for recommending this establishment for our restaurant series!
Norris Jarrett’s Tips for Perfect Homemade Whipped Cream (Good on Everything)
- Thoroughly chill the bowl and beaters.
- Pour in heavy cream and a dash of vanilla extract.
- Whip with an electric mixer on high.
- When cream is almost whipped, add granulated sugar to sweeten.
- Serve generously on dessert.