Edna’s #1 Drive-In, the iconic dining establishment at the corner of River and Sunset drives, is closing Thursday after 54 years.
But, even as we observe that burger-and-fry joint’s departure, it should be noted there are other Columbia-area restaurants that have been in business for 30 years or more.
Here’s what owners and longtime customers say about what makes them special.
Compton’s Kitchen, Established 1977
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At 90 years of age, Perry Compton still comes in early on Friday and Saturday mornings to make buttermilk biscuits. It’s a routine he started on Nov. 1, 1977, when he opened up Compton’s Kitchen as a biscuit house just around the corner from its current location, on B Avenue in West Columbia. The biscuits were a hit and so was Compton.
In the winter of 1978, a foot of snow fell in West Columbia. Compton, who lived nearby, walked to the restaurant “like it was an ordinary day,” he recalls.
“I looked out the door about 30 minutes before we were supposed to open and there was a line of people standing outside in the snow. We were the only people, the only restaurant, with power” in the neighborhood.
“I started baking. We baked 43 pans of biscuits that day, 36 biscuits to the pan. People were buying biscuits by the dozen because they didn’t know when the power would come back,” said Compton.
About 2 p.m., “We had to send someone over to Irmo to get sausage for the biscuits. We were running out of food.”
It’s that sense of community and caring that endures at Compton’s.
Longtime customers G.L. Locklear and Mark Lown hold court in the back corner booth of the restaurant. That location allows them to see all of the comings and goings, and to get a quick refill of coffee from their favorite waitresses.
“You might call it a red-neck restaurant,” says Lown. “Everyone from ministers to politicians — even some USC athletic — come in and mill around. You’ll see groups of police and EMS ... lots of different types.”
Locklear points to some of the photos showing Compton’s restaurant over the years, adding he has worked on some of the upgrades and additions. “I come back for the food and the camaraderie,” he says.
At the next booth, Robert McKnight has just sat down with his father-in-law Curtis Wright and McKnight’s grandson, Bubba. “We come once or twice a week,” says McKnight over a plate of eggs-over-medium, grits and crisp bacon, and a cup of coffee.
“I’ve been coming for 15 years. People I went to school with in Olympia come over for the fellowship,” he says.
Laura Bush works as a waitress at Compton’s and opens the restaurant for Mr. Compton on the mornings that he bakes biscuits. “We will sit for a minute and talk over a cup of coffee while the biscuits are in the oven,” she says.
Like the others on staff who have been there for a while, Bush knows the regular customers.
“We know who will be coming in and when and what they will be ordering,” she says. “We listen to them, their life stories. We keep track of them and where they are (for health reasons). If we haven’t seen them when they should be here, we will call or go by their house to check on them.”
One of the staff’s favorite customers is former Mayor Earle Williams. At 101, Williams still makes it to the restaurant. “He’s like family,” says Bush.
Martha Cooke started at Compton’s as a manager in the late 1980s. In 2000, she bought the restaurant from Compton.
Not much has changed, however. “We started catering for churches and office parties and holidays about 15 years ago,” she says.
Compton’s “is a word-of-mouth business with a generational history. There’s no place better.
“We keep the customers first and our relationship with our customers is lifelong,” Cooke said. “The staff knows where the customers will be when we open and will go ahead and set up the table with plates and their special coffee cups and requested items, like ketchup and jelly. It really is like family.”
Pointing to a sign that hangs over the door to the kitchen that reads “dismustbedaplace,” Cooke says, “we always ask about everyone’s mama and family. One day, I’m gonna get a t-shirt printed, like that sign, that says ‘howsyomamaandthem?’ ”