As the new kid on the block, Betsy Simons wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. “I have a good compass; I listen to people and I felt this would be good,” says Simons of her ’50s-style diner, Betsy’s on the Corner, in downtown Aiken. But she had no idea that the business would hit the ground running as a roaring—literally—success.
Since opening about two years ago, Betsy’s has been the place to go for lunch, business meetings, team celebrations and socializing at the soda fountain. While the Southern, made-from-scratch menu and delectable, old-fashioned treats are certainly powerful draws, there is just something else about Betsy’s—something that connects people of all ages while transporting them to a nostalgic nook in the American diner tradition.
“People hunger for a little of that simpler way of life and the way things used to be,” says Simons. “There is nothing high tech here. It’s an escape; it’s not corporate. People keep coming back—even when it gets hot in here, even with the noise, even when it’s crowded.”
Most every day the restaurant is open for lunch, every table is taken and patrons patiently wait their turn at a place in the din. It’s not a raucous environment; rather, it’s a steady roar of lively chatter that rises out of the most eclectic collection of people—a mother bouncing a child on her knee, an equestrian with dust from the morning’s ride on his boots, a lawyer with shiny black wing tips. Punctuating the dozens of conversations buzzing in the dining area are whirring blenders and quick-scooting waitresses in red shirts calling and confirming orders with the kitchen and clearing plates.
“All kinds of people come here from Augusta, North Augusta, Columbia, Charleston. It blows my mind,” says Simons, head shaking in near disbelief at the diner’s extensive and explosive popularity. She continues with a story about a couple from Australia who changed their travel plans to include Aiken so they could experience Betsy’s. According to Simons, the jet-setting duo had seen the national Fox News feature story on the resurgence of old-fashioned diners in the U.S., which showcased Betsy’s along with other such establishments in Georgia and Kentucky.
Born and raised on a farm in small-town Saluda, S.C., Simons sometimes has trouble wrapping her mind around the magnitude of her diner’s magnetism. To her, there is nothing all that revolutionary about fried chicken, burgers, hot dogs, salads and sandwiches. Reflecting this modest sentiment is a section of her menu that’s called Plain Jane, which features items like the pimento cheese sandwich, BLT and a grilled cheese sandwich that may consist of a combination of any three cheeses, including havarti, pepper jack, provolone and Gouda. But real cheese, real cream and real sugar are hot commodities in a high-fructose corn syrup world where meals come in preservative-laced cans and boxes or foil-wrapped in bags at the drive-through.
A lot of the love has fallen out of food cultivation and preparation. As Simons marvels, it’s rare to find someone who actually knows how to cook, not just assemble pre-packaged ingredients or mixes. “I can’t remember not cooking,” says Simons, who has a degree in home economics and worked as a cooking demonstrator for Aiken Electric Cooperative and the Clemson Extension Service. Even as a youngster on the farm, she and her four siblings were little master chefs, pulling their weight to help with household duties and family meals. Pre-made is a cardinal sin at Betsy’s—if you don’t have all the ingredients, you don’t make it and it’s not on the menu that day. Simons’s kitchen has a strict set of culinary blueprints—as simple as they may be—that must be followed. “I know good food. I have a good palate,” she says.
And so Betsy’s has proved that you don’t always need to be fancy to be flavorfully divine—like the South Boundary Burger, a ground chuck patty piled with grilled onions, green peppers, mushrooms, provolone cheese and horseradish sauce. Or another fan favorite—the Caprese, a grilled sourdough sandwich made with Gouda, tomato, avocado and basil mayo. All sandwiches, including burgers and hot dogs, are served with homemade coleslaw, which can be substituted with fresh-cut French fries, sweet potato fries, homemade onion rings, fruit, salad or a cup of soup. If possible, save room for a slice of one of Simons’s famous cakes or pies. “The cake menu is what I feel like making that week. I do all the baking so it really varies,” she says. There are the diner standards, like carrot cake, red velvet, strawberry cake and German chocolate cake. And then there are some of Simons’s classics, like the banana cake, coconut custard pie and a delightful chocolate cake with bourbon, nuts and pecans.
Many patrons make a special trip for the soda fountain, the piece de resistance of the diner experience. Betsy’s carries all the traditional glassware for milkshakes, sundaes, floats and banana splits, not to mention all the ice cream flavors to go with it—from the usual chocolate, vanilla and strawberry to more unique ones such as almond amaretto, key lime, sea turtle and blueberry cheesecake. Place your order at the counter and take as long as you need to savor your selected indulgence. “I grew up going to a place like this,” says Simons. “And I knew the kids would love the stools to get up on, twirl around and eat ice cream. A lot of people can relate to it; it appeals to a variety of ages.” It’s not often that atmosphere and food align to create a dynamic, connective and delicious experience that recalls the past without missing the present moment. That’s why there’s just something about Betsy’s.
Article appears in the October 2017 issue of Augusta Magazine.