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.
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.
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.