The Smith House: Striking Dining Hall Gold in Dahlonega

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Restaurant Sign Georgia

The Smith House showcases timeless Southern food in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

We live in an era where people are always hunting for trends, but sometimes, restaurants warrant reflection. Just look to the hills of north Georgia and you’ll find a prime example of a phenomenon that dates back at least a century: boarding house dining. At the turn of the 20th century, you’d find establishments scattered across the rural south that packaged room and board for a pittance. The travelers would gather at communal tables, pass to the left and fill their stomachs before striking out for points north, south, east or west. In the South, you can still eat at the few remaining boarding houses, including Miss Mary Bobo’s in Lynchburg, Tennessee, Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Savannah, Georgia, and The Smith House in Dahlonega, which dates to 1922 in a town that hosted America’s first gold rush. The mining ceased long ago, but you’ll still find gold on city hall’s roof and for sale in shops on Dahlonega’s town square. In The Smith House, you’ll also find bottomless Southern dishes that are made with bygone recipes, many of which are satisfying.

The Smith House plays up the property’s history, with a glassed-off gold mine and hallway walls lined with black-and-white photos. Framed papers tell the story of how Henry Benjamin (Ben) Smith and wife Bessie Camilla Bowen bought the home of Captain Frank Hall. They converted the house into a seven-room inn and Bessie started cooking for guests. She gained a reputation for her fried chicken, country ham and vegetables. This became The Smith House. Bessie died on March 9, 1939, and Ben continued running The Smith House until 1944. He sold the business to William Manning Smith (unrelated), who sold the business to William Fry in 1946. Fred and Thelma Welch ran the restaurant before purchasing it from the Smiths in 1970. Fred’s son Freddy and grandson Chris currently run the Smith House.

Pay upstairs, then take your ticket to the hostess below decks. It’s $14.95 per person, a massive bargain considering the array of options and quality of the food.

Restaurant Georgia

Communal tables have become popular in modern restaurants, but at historic spots like The Smith House, there’s no other option. Sit with strangers in one of four dining rooms and pass bottomless bowls to the left…or the right. The walls of our well-worn room were lined with unspectacular paintings and plenty of taxidermied animals, which are de rigueur.

Taxidermy Georgia

A ledge near the entrance hosts a sleek stuffed fox. [Wes Anderson would no doubt be horrified.] We also encountered ducks “in flight” and a shiny sport fish, since everybody knows north Georgia rivers are teeming with marlin.

Bread Georgia

The piled-high bread basket contained soft, pull-apart yeast rolls and miniature cornbread muffins.

Fried Chicken Georgia

The Smith House offers two meats per day, and one of them is always fried chicken. The birds were skinned, marinated in buttermilk and coated in flour before frying in vegetable oil. This process led to unquestionably juicy meat. It was a little strange that the skin was gone, since that would have contributed something for the batter to cling to and additional crispness. Still, the overall effect was very impressive.

Barbecue Georgia

Pulled pork had an overarching tomato sweetness and wasn’t crusty enough.

Relish Georgia

One of the highlights was undoubtedly the jars of house-made relish. Tangy-sweet cranberry relish helped to cut the richness of some of the food, and thin-shaved pickled squash were a welcome alternative to bread-and-butter pickles.

Southern Food Georgia

We ate four different servings of collard greens throughout our stay in Atlanta. The Smith House’s minced version was pretty good, but the least satisfying, with the most bitterness. For a down home restaurant, it was surprising how healthy the vegetables seemed to be, with no evident hog fat. Mrs. Smith no doubt incorporated more lard, fat back and bacon pre-Depression.

Southern Food Georgia

Corn pudding was too watery and didn’t have the topside caramelization of premiere corn pudding like Monell’s in Nashville.

Southern Food Georgia

Sweet potato slabs once again proved that simplicity is often best, with none of the syrupy sweetness that afflicts lesser versions.

Southern Food Georgia

Cinnamon-laced baked apples were spreadable and could have easily been dessert, but we had sweeter plates to come.

Of the remaining sides, fried okra was a highlight, crispy battered chunks of slime-free vegetables. The green beans were the biggest letdown, mushy and basically not worth more than a couple bites. We also encountered a loaf of stuffing and turkey and dressing, which were undoubtedly leftovers from the previous day’s feast. These all went uneaten after so much similar consumption on Thanksgiving.

Pie Georgia

The tiny pecan pie slice was pretty good, with a syrupy core, pecan tiles and dense but buttery crust.

Dessert Georgia

Strawberry shortcake was unspectacular. Even roasted strawberries and soft serve vanilla ice cream couldn’t redeem the dry cake base.

The Smith House has become a tourist attraction, but the latest generation of owners have remained committed to quality food, and if you don’t mind sitting with strangers, check out the restaurant the next time you’re in north Georgia.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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nice post. thanks.

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