By Andy Napier
In Graniteville, South Carolina, a town built around industry and hard work, there are several unspoken truths. Some of these maxims—that the Gamecocks reign supreme, for example—are more widely-acknowledged than others. There can be no doubt, however, as to what the most accepted one is: the Blue Top Grill has the best hamburgers in the known world.
A modest, plain blue building tucked deep in the conifer forest surrounding Graniteville, the Blue Top might look like a “hole-in-the-wall” from an outsider’s perspective. True, it certainly doesn’t have the streamlined, market-tested design of a global fast food franchise or restaurant chain. However, the plain white walls and simple décor does carry one advantage: it does an excellent job of showing off the dozens of Aiken county annual first place awards for best hamburger and hotdog.
Tradition is very much a part of the Blue Top’s success. Current owner, Renee Lutot, began working in her grandparents’ diner when she was just 12 years old. “I literally grew up in this place,” said Lutot. “For nearly 38 years, I’ve been the first person to walk through the front door and the last to leave almost every single day.” Lutot decided to work for her family’s business because, like all teenagers, she realized that finding a job was a fast-approaching inevitability. As a child, she had spent countless hours scurrying around the kitchen and surrounding areas. She said, “Some of my earliest memories come from this building.” With the passage of time, however, she would one day be running the kitchen, rather than exploring it.
After taking the reins from her mother, Linda Smith, in 2008, Lutot represents the third generation of the original owning family to continue running the restaurant. Observing Lutot in her element, it becomes obvious that she knows every inch of the kitchen and knows nearly all of the locals who routinely stop by for an after-work burger even better.
According to 19-year-old Blue Top employee Vanessa Miller, “Most of our customers are regulars who come by at least once a week, if not more than once. We have loyal customers; we know what they’re going to order before they even sit down.” Although she is one of Blue Top’s newer employees, Miller’s words ring true. On week nights, they’re rarely any booths open past 6 p.m. Yet, no matter how crowded the cramped dining area gets, there’s always a crowd of people happy to wait.
From Humble Beginnings
Like most of the town’s buildings and homes, Blue Top lies in the shadow of the once-thriving Graniteville Mill. In many ways, the town of Graniteville itself was a direct product of the textile mill. According to the South Carolina Department of Archives, the Graniteville Mill was established by entrepreneur William Gregg in 1845 and was for many years the South’s largest cotton factory. By the early 1900s, around 90 shack-like homes were constructed around the mill, their foundations composed of the cheaper “blue” granite from local quarries (hence, Granite-ville). These tiny huts earned the nickname “shotgun houses” because a shotgun round could supposedly pass through the front and back doors cleanly when they were both opened simultaneously, the living room being so small that the spread of a shotgun round would have no effect on the cheaply-made walls or floor. (One can only wonder how this discovery was made).
A staggeringly overpriced mill store which accepted only company “script”—currency that could only be spent in the company store—and two small churches were also added to the community in the first quarter of the 20th century. After several decades of profits and growth, the Graniteville Mill had essentially built an entire town around the company. The mill owned the small houses. It owned the store and the products inside. It owned the churches and In some ways, the workers inside. However, it goes without saying that with such a large flow of laborers working long shifts, some workers are bound to get hungry.
After years of working at the Graniteville Mill, Renee Lutot’s grandfather—Jimmy Overstreet—decided to transform his hobby and talent of cooking for friends and fellow mill workers into a legitimate business. In 1951, Jimmy and Emmie Overstreet purchased the extra lot next to their own home at 212 Aiken Road and opened the Blue Top Grill. Over 65 years later, the quaint, one-story building stands, nearly unchanged: white paint, blue siding and an unmistakable and fantastic aroma of hand cut French fries. Today, a large portrait of Jimmy and Emmie’s warm faces greets customers as they enter and silently bids farewell as customers leave.
More than Burgers
A well-known fixture in the community, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Graniteville native who has never experienced the life-changing taste of a Blue Top burger. Blue Top employee Wanda Hayden remembers visiting the diner regularly as a kid. “I think that was probably the very first hamburger and French fry meal that I actually paid for myself,” said Hayden. Now known by patrons for her especially excellent batches of golden fries, Hayden was once a high school girl who met new people, went on dates, and hung out with friends, all at the local “spot”—Blue Top Grill.
Another longtime customer, 78-year-old Mildred Frye also remembers visiting Blue Top Grill as a highschooler. A student in the 1954 Graniteville High School graduating class, Frye can’t repress a guilty smile as she reminisces on her frequent trips to the diner during school hours. “We were allowed to leave and come back for lunch for around 30 minutes, so we always piled as many people as we possibly could into my friend’s car and drove to Blue Top. My favorite thing was the pinball machines,” said Frye. “And I can’t think of a single time we made it back to class in 30 minutes.”
For Mildred Frye and the large swath of loyal customers who love the Blue Top Grill, it’s not just about good hamburgers and French fries. Nor is it simply the excellent service or welcoming atmosphere. Granted, those things are important parts of Blue Top’s success. However, the true reason the Blue Top Grill stands out to customers is because it represents the heart and character of a small town like Graniteville. It isn’t the fanciest or most visually-stunning restaurant. There are no expensive pieces of abstract art on the wall and the food isn’t made by some gourmet, world-class celebrity chef. But for an overworked, tired mill worker or group of excited high school students racing to avoid detention, it’s just right.
Napier is a graduate journalism student at usc.