Doing It Old-School
If you’ve been going to the Georgia coast for a long time, you’re probably a little awed by the changes there in the last few years. Once characterized by fried seafood palaces, ’50s motels and small beach bungalows, even stuck-in-a-time-warp Tybee now boasts movie stars, mansions and supreme marine cuisine.
What’s going to happen to the quirky little eateries – places known for their slow but friendly service, alarmingly sweet tea, homemade tartar sauce and fantastic fried Georgia shrimp, harvested just outside their door? Places like Speed’s Kitchen, in a group of attached trailers, or Pelican Point, with the most astonishing seafood buffet I’ve ever seen?
Thankfully, so far the answer is: Nothing – at presstime, all of my favorites are still in business, and in fact, there’s another to add to the list: Chef Jerome’s Old-School Diner. Incredibly, this late entrant, open only a couple of years, may qualify under “best” and “most” for my entire checklist of Quirky Coastal Cuisine Essentials. Sandy, obscure road to entrance: Check. Ramshackle warren of rooms: Check. Killer fried seafood: Check. Chef/owner with personality to spare: Check, check and double-check.
The experience begins in the restaurant’s parking lot, which is, inexplicably, carpeted with large, mismatched remnants. The building, painted the color of cooked shrimp, is covered with old tools; yard art includes flea market finds, and near the front door, a wheelchair – presumably waiting to assist anyone who dares order the house specialty (read on).
Chef Jerome Brown greeted us, total strangers and all, with kisses in the front room. An ebullient man in his chef’s whites and toque who looks more than a little like Chef on South Park, he’s obviously proud of his place, which he’s apparently expanded by adding a room at a time, each with a different name and theme. He led us through each one before depositing us in the biggest – with a bar, bandstand, rear-projection TV and several nice-looking but mismatched dining tables with comfortable chairs. The walls are crammed with photos, plastic sea creatures and movie mementos.
The menu tells it all: Oysters, catfish nuggets, deviled crab, even lobster and gator tails, as well as barbecued ribs (“Like going to heaven without dying!”) smothered in “Chef Jerome’s ‘You Da Man!’ Sauce.”
But forget all that: You’re ordering the house special, The Wheel Chair Platter ($45). Why? As the menu clearly states: “Ben Affleck says, ‘Why Ask? Trust Your Chef!’” (Yes, the movie star and part-time resident of nearby Hampton Island boasts his own private table.)
This glorious festival of food consists of the best of what’s at hand that day – in our case, a heap of crisp fried shrimp, fried whiting, fried grouper, deviled crab and a mound of ribs, heaped into a giant Melamine dip-and-chip server with a choice of side (coleslaw, potato salad or French fries) and a basket of hush puppies for the table. We definitely could have used that chair.
Every dish bears the mark of a man who wants to do it right: The light batter, the creamy slaw, the outstanding housemade cocktail sauce, the fat, smoky ribs. And Brown isn’t missing many angles either: Along with T-shirts, you can buy a signed menu for $3. (By the way, bring plenty of cash – credit cards and checks aren’t accepted.)
Chef Jerome’s isn’t for everyone. But if you like old-school fried seafood, start planning your visit.
Chef Jerome’s Old-School Diner
Jessie Grant Road off Harris Neck Road
(near Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge)
Hours: Dinner Wednesday-Saturday; lunch and dinner Sunday.
Credit cards: None accepted. Cash only.
Parking: Available on attached, carpeted lot.
Dress code: Anything from a bathing suit to a tuxedo.