2366 Ashley River Road
Serving: Breakfast and Lunch
Entree Prices: Inexpensive
When I was a boy, my father sometimes woke me early in the morning, long before dawn, and we would head to Pete's Café for breakfast. It sat in a sad section of our small town, next to a filling station on the road to Augusta, and constituted nothing more than a little country restaurant, with big warm hearts and even bigger bowls of steaming grits scattered among country folk from every walk of life. Pete's was run by a local family with Italian roots and collected a diverse gathering. I always lingered at the jukebox in the corner while my dad discussed Jimmy Carter and rising interest rates with a smattering of farmers and hunters and perhaps the mayor, seated in a communal row at the long counter. Somewhere along the way, Pete's burned down, and I assumed that places like it were a dying breed, a manifestation of a different, more romantic time.
Then I found the Sunflower Café. Stumbled on it would be more accurate, since they don't really advertise, except with the cheery sign that fronts Highway 61 out near the Pierpont area. It might sport a little more refinement than Pete's ever did, but it's the people that count, and like my nostalgic childhood diner, they welcome all with the warmest of hearts.
Sunflower is a family run place, with "Mama" sometimes holding court at the big round table next to the counter. She's the kind of lady that kisses all kids, hands out toys for good behavior, and talks your fussy three-year-old into finishing her milk. And her big smile is reflected in the rest of the crowd that gathers there, as bright as sunflowers in a summer field.
If the menu looks familiar, then you've detected the place's lineage. The owner, Mama's daughter, used to work at Joseph's, way down on Meeting Street, and the style of the food remains similar, with creative salads and sandwiches at lunchtime and wonderful omelets, benedicts, and hotcakes in the morning. Everything at Sunflower tastes so good, and the service is so warm and wonderful that I loathe writing about it at all, lest I not be able to get a seat tomorrow.
They serve my favorite breakfast west of the Ashley — an omelet with fresh crab and artichoke hearts ($8.25), brie cheese oozing from within the feathery sheaves of egg. Then again, perhaps I'd rather have the benedict with country ham ($6.25), with perfectly poached eggs and a real hollandaise sauce spooned over toasted English muffins. Sometimes I stop in just for a cup of coffee and the beignets ($3.25), not quite New Orleans, but stellar nonetheless.
The waffles and pancakes take up their own section of the menu, and they span from plain waffles ($4.50) to fancy sweet potato pancakes topped with pecan butter and dusted with powdered sugar (I couldn't describe it any better myself). The cakes are light as clouds, and the kids get little whipped cream smiley faces on top. My wife likes the pecan waffles with banana syrup ($5.75), but there's not a bad pick in the bunch. My only complaint? If they would open at 6 a.m., I could swing by before work and never miss breakfast again.
Lunch dishes range from the simple to the extravagant (at least by Ashley River Road standards). A simple cup of the soup of the day costs $2.50, and a small house salad is only $2.95, but on a lazy Saturday afternoon, you might want to splurge. For $8.50 you can score a grilled filet mignon served over a spinach salad. The little slices of quality steak mingle with blue cheese and bacon bits, the spicy crunch of slivered red onions, and the sweet bite of a balsamic dressing.
The burger, an 8 oz. handmade patty comes grilled the way you like it with your choice of cheese and a stack of crispy fries for a mere $6.50. But my favorite sandwich is the crabcake ($7.95). It's decent crab, about what you'd expect for eight bucks, but they plop it down between the folds of a feathery croissant with lettuce and fresh, ripe tomato, and slather the whole thing with a delicious, lip-smacking remoulade.
My daughter turns her nose up at such ostentatious fare. She enjoys the simple things, a PB&J ($2.95), or a grilled cheese ($3.50) with a big glass of milk. Sometimes she'll have the chicken fingers ($4.75). Mama brings a little toy over, I eavesdrop on a couple of farmers discussing soybean prices and the presidential election, and except for the missing jukebox, all is right with the world again.