Tommy Thompson and I had been out on a photo trek across Cherokee County. We had reached the town of Gaffney and we were ready for lunch. We were looking for something quirky and local – not the chain places located out near the interstate. Gaffney is a college town, so I was hoping for something like what we found in Athens. However, Limestone College is no UGA, so pickin’s were slim. When we saw the sign on Harold’s Restaurant saying “Featured on the Food Network” we decided we had to check it out.
Harold Tindall opened the restaurant in 1932 with a unique recipe for a chili burger. The place gained a local following, and sometime in the last couple of decades (time unknown) Tony and Holly Lipscombe purchased the restaurant. They retained all of the original recipes, and pretty much all of the same furnishings and decor.
It’s a dive. Period. One walks into a narrow space lined with booths on one side and a lunch counter on the other. First up is a massive menu board with instructions to order at the counter. Several other diners were seated either in booths or at the bar. The place is decked out in yellow for Gaffney’s high school football team.
Tommy and I approached the counter to place our orders, but were immediately directed to a booth, despite signs saying, “Sorry, No Booth Service.”
At one point I stepped back to the restrooms. To get there, I had to pass through a door into the connecting bar/pool hall. A VERY drunk guy sitting at the bar spotted me looking around, and haphazardly waved me toward the back of the place. Several other patrons were hanging out or shooting pool. It was a bit…spooky.
The menu is typical Southern short-order fare. The “World Famous Chili Burger” tops the list at a buck fifty-nine. There’s not much over five dollars until you start getting into bulk orders, where you can order a gallon of the chili sauce with meatballs for $27.
There are also wings and some appetizers. Oddly enough, these cost more than the sandwiches.
Our waitress told us that there were two specials for the day – a chili burger plate with fries and a drink, and a vegetable soup with grilled cheese sandwich plate with a drink.
The menu board also featured Fatback XL. I’m not sure if that’s the size of the order, or the size you will be upon completion of the order. They also had “Freedom Fries.”
Food (and Service)
Here’s were things get weird(er), and I’m afraid I’m going to have to combine the “Food” section with the “Service” section this time, because they were so entwined…
First off, Tommy and I had ordered diet sodas right off the bat. We were thirsty. The waitress brought us two cans and two cups of ice. OK, nothing too weird yet. Then we placed our orders. Tommy ordered the vegetable soup and grilled cheese special. I ordered the chili burger special. We were informed that these came with iced tea, but since we had ordered soft drinks she was going to have to charge us more. I began to scratch my head. The menu says that a small tea is $1.59, and that a can of soda is $0.99. So, why, exactly, would it be more? Shouldn’t it be less? We let it slide for the time being.
When placing his order, Tommy asked for his sandwich on wheat rather than white. The waitress’s exact words were, “You come to a place like this and order grilled cheese…on wheat??” We also tempted fate by ordering jalapeno poppers as an appetizer.
Tommy’s sandwich arrived first, and only his sandwich. It was, in fact, served on wheat, with a cheese-like substance less greasy than he might have feared. It might actually have been cheese. My chili burger arrived, but Tommy’s soup and the jalapeno poppers were nowhere to be seen.
As for my “chili burger”, it was chili with mushy meatballs topped with diced onions. There was no burger. It was a complete misnomer. In fact, upon further exploration I found that they didn’t serve anything resembling a hamburger, just these chili burger things.
It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve eaten. That honor is reserved for Danny’s Cafe, another dive just up the road in Blacksburg. However, I certainly wouldn’t classify it as good. The fries were OK.
Tommy accosted the waitress about his soup. She had thought that he had only wanted the sandwich. We also asked about the poppers, and she said that they were still cooking. They hadn’t crisped up the way she likes. The thought of these things sitting in a deep fryer at temperatures lower than they should ran through my mind, and I shuddered. She did return with Tommy’s soup, and another grilled cheese sandwich to go along with it.
Tommy said that his food was OK. Not memorable, but OK. Some fifteen minutes after we had finished our meal, the poppers (which were supposed to be an appetizer) arrived. They were actually OK. I suspect that these came pre-packaged frozen and went straight into an oven to brown up, rather than cooked from scratch and deep-fried. They were certainly hot, and were crisp.
The waitress was friendly enough, and tried to be endearing by also being ornery. It was a weird mix that didn’t quite work. Combine that with the ordering snafus, and I’d have to rank service lower than I might otherwise.
I normally don’t include this section, preferring to rely on my own experiences when reviewing a place. However, since this is “world famous” I think I’d include some of the other reviews I’ve found. First up, the two video clips from Diners, Dives, and Drive-ins from when Guy Fieri paid his visit…
Guy never says anything bad about the places he visits, but you can tell a lot from his facial expressions. When the best thing he has to say about the chili burger is “the killer part is the steamed bun,” then you know it’s not great. His expression when forced to eat fatback is priceless, and the editors cut away after he takes a bite and before he can talk again.
More telling are the reviews on other sites such as TripAdvisor, Yahoo, Urbanspoon, Yelp, and even the Food Channel itself. These are all, for the most part, resoundingly bad.
This one from Yelp really caught my attention, and kind of sums it up…
The chili IS bland and a touch watery, but it might actually be homemade (not from a can as others have suggested)- – it has a lot of ground beef, but on a very innocuous base The dog and bacon were fun, the cheese was not technically cheese, from my perspective. It was, instead, industrial goo….
The staff there are scary. Inscrutably, frightningly, scary (people kept yelling out of the kitchen or walking in and saying inscrutable things). Surly, insensitive, self-absorbed. This place clocks in 9 out of 10 on the weird-o-meter. There is something strange going on here, for better or worse.
Don’t do it. Just…don’t. Ignore the lure of someplace featured on the Food Network, and head out to one of the more reliable chain places near the interstate. Don’t take this as a challenge to see how bad the place really is. You’re not that strong. Leave Harold’s for the locals who have already built up immunity.