Most meals served at gas stations are forgettable or worse. But there are exceptions. South Carolina is especially blessed, notably with Roy's Grille of Lexington for shrimp and grits (and Exxon gas), Bobop's of Estill for fried chicken (Marathon gas), and Aiken County's own Dave's Grill and Grocery (ethanol-free gas).
Head out Wagener Road (302) to Couchton, beyond the city's brick and mortar enterprise into horse-farm country. Here you find Dave's by the side of the road: gas station, café, convenience-store market and butcher shop. Dave Golding is the man behind it. When I ask how long he's been butchering meats and serving meals, he answers, "I'm on my fourth set of baby bottoms." Huh? He points to a counter where four generations of customers have placed orders, sitting their baby on the counter as they reached for their wallet or purse.
Although he sold the business to Andrew Siders this past summer, Dave still comes in to make the sausage on which Aiken County cooks have depended for so long. "To me, this never was a job," Dave says. "It is a passion."
"Good to see you!" calls out one old-timer having lunch as Dave enters the kitchen to hone his knives. "Better to be seen than viewed," Dave shoots back.
Andrew Siders vows to keep all that's good about Dave's, even beyond Dave himself. That includes a lunchtime steam table with pork chops and barbecue along with green beans, collard greens and mac 'n' cheese. As you might expect in a butcher shop, hash on rice is outstanding. Peppery and pungent yet smooth as cream, it's a great side dish with any main course. I know one customer who comes for a double order in lieu of a main course.
Hamburgers are modest patties, slender enough that you don't specify rare or well-done, yet they glisten with beefy juice. Blanketed with cheese and bedecked with mustard, mayo, lettuce, onion and tomato, they deliver brash short-order satisfaction that kobe beef couldn't match.
French fries deserve their own hurrah. Cooked honeytone-handsome in clean oil, they're mostly tender but laced with a few dark, crunchy spud twigs.
One thing that's different about the new Dave's, beyond its expanded grocery selection and having a license to sell beer, is the chili dog. Andrew's uncle, A.R. Edwards, originally brought the chili recipe to Aiken from West Virginia (a great chili-dog state). Today, one and only one person makes it: Andrew's mother, who slow-simmers each batch all night. It's beefy and tomato-tangy with a subtle shot of spice and a few ingredients that remain a family secret. This exquisite condiment complements but does not overwhelm the wiener it smothers.
A full-dress chili dog is bunned with mustard, ketchup and a scattering of chopped raw onions. Cognoscenti get it microwaved a few seconds – just long enough to soften the bun and orchestrate the flavor notes. With a bottle of Cheerwine and an order of French fries, this is fine dining, gas-station style.
Dave's Grill & Grocery: 3286 Wagener Rd., Aiken, SC. 803-648-7751