Down South: Herb’s Grill
By Tom Poland
Every neighborhood needs its own restaurant. One it can count on year in and year out.
The folks in St. Andrews and Irmo had one for many years. It sat at the corner of St. Andrews and Broad River Road. A billboard towered over one side of the joint and a large oak stood out back. Inside? No frills. A blue-collar vibe. Cement floor. Frosty mugs of beer. Sizzling fried chicken. Cole slaw. Fries. A roll.
You paid Bill, who looked a bit like Joe Paterno; he worked the cash register. Two pool tables, a wall behind the bar plastered with signed dollar bills. Fridays meant catfish stew, and Friday nights meant waiting on a table. All at a place called Herb’s Grill.
Go there and you’d see folks clad in baseball uniforms, SLED agents, office parties, couples, families, loners, the salt of the earth, and plain hungry people. Looking back, memories rise from the surface of a large lake called Recollection. Things you don’t forget. Like the time Herb, a one-time deputy sheriff, took care of a fellow slinging profanity all over the place. Said Herb, “Watch your language. We have women and children in here.”
“I don’t see no expletive, expletive women and kids,” said the man.
Herb grabbed the man’s right ear and dragged him to the front door where he kicked him onto the asphalt. Herb was a big man. He looked like a former law officer should look. And he acted the part when necessary. You knew you were safe at Herb’s.
I frequented the place throughout the 1980s. For me, many a Friday afternoon turned into an evening at Herb’s. Back then I worked at what is today the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. I worked in the film unit and my boss and I would leave work around 2:30 in the afternoon to “shoot stock footage.” All we shot was pool at Herb’s. That and a lot of bull.
The place had a cast of characters. There was Rabbit, an old-timer whose main love in life seemed to be beer. I remember, too, Bob “Cherry Pie” Bodie. From Newberry County he was, I recall. Sold insurance, I believe. I called him Cherry Pie because that was what he said about the most difficult pool shots. He’d size up a difficult shot and pronounce. “Cherry pie.” He never missed. He might have been a hustler. He could have been a hustler. We shot eight ball a lot and I never won. Not once. His daughter racked the balls. She must have been around 12. I remember, too, a waitress named Cindy, blonde and alluring.
The greatest characters, however, were friendly and accommodating Herb and Bertha. They ran a place the likes of which we’ll never see again. For multitudes, Herb’s Grill was the place to go. The era of the noisy TV-infested sports bar had yet to arrive nor had franchise restaurants brought their monotony to the hungry, bored, and thrill seekers. Herb’s Grill was unique. It began as Herb’s Grill and Open Air Market but turned into an eatery, a true neighborhood bar.
Nothing remains of it except memories and memorabilia. For me that amounts to a stolen mug, the one you see in the photograph. When I heard the place might close, that Herb and Bertha were considering retirement, I knew I needed a mug.
Were it open I’d go there still. A CVS pharmacy stands where Herb’s Grill fed all manner of people: judges, business folk, government workers, the down and out, pilots, those who appreciated a game of pool topped off with cold beer and fried chicken, and many a badge-wearing man and woman. Yes, you knew you were safe at Herb’s.
Herb and Bertha worked hard, long hours. They lived in a home attached to the back of the grill and operated the grill for 30 years. People acknowledged the legendary chicken was the best. And the beer. You could scratch a curl of ice from your mug, but that mug was small. It required a lot of refills.
A friendly place it was. People sat around tables and actually talked. The era of cellphone has not arrived. If you needed to make a call, you used the pay phone up near the entrance. But if you stayed on it too long, Bertha would run you off it. It was also their business phone.
Herb’s Christmas party was not to be missed. Well before December Herb would lean over and utter a gruff whisper into his favorite patrons’ ear, “Christmas Party Dec. 17. You be here.” It was a command.
Times change but not always for the best. Neighborhood bars still exist, so I hear, but I’ve yet to come across another Herb’s Grill.