Soon after Elizabeth Perkins and her daughter Emily arrived in Aiken from Roanoke, Va., for a horse show, someone recommended Betsy’s on the Corner for lunch – the downtown restaurant that recently won one of the preservation awards from the Historic Aiken Foundation.
Emily has seen old pictures of drugstores and small restaurants that look a lot like Betsy’s.
“It’s good and neat to go back, like an adventure to the past and bringing it into now,” Emily, 14, said.
Betsy Simons knows about the past, she said with a smile. She and four siblings grew up on a farm in Saluda, and her oldest sister cooked for the family, followed by the next sister and then Betsy, the youngest of the girls.
Fred Parkman, her brother and 12 years older, studied to become a pharmacist and returned to Saluda to open a drugstore and pharmacy.
“He had a soda foundation with snacks, and I grew up as a soda jerk,” Simons said while taking a short break on Wednesday. “There also was a little restaurant, too, called Winn’s, with the juke boxes on the tables. I wish I had those juke boxes. The highlight then was Pat’s Department Store and the lunch counter, where we could get vegetable soup and cornbread and blueberry cobbler.”
Let’s just say that Simons found her own past and her future, too, at the same time last year. At Betsy’s on the Corner on any day, one can get, for example, soup, burgers, chicken and egg salad, the Blue Suede Special, Rose’s fried chicken, baby lima beans, mashed potatoes with gravy, corn muffins and chicken and dumplings to die for. Yet, earlier this week, the special was a chicken and asparagus wrap, chicken tenders, mozzarella and pesto on a grilled wrap.
After leaving home years ago, Simons did go on to get a degree in home economics and arrived in Aiken in the mid-1970s as a Clemson extension agent. Then she joined the staff at Aiken Electric Cooperative in the area of energy and conservation. She did some microwave-based cookbooks when the devices were becoming more popular.
She later ventured into a children’s clothes business and after spending several years at home with her daughter Whitney, Simons became a Realtor, and still is.
Yet, her interest in cooking hadn’t gone away and she enjoyed preparing meals for friends. And sure enough, they invariably gushed about her chicken and dumplings and encouraged her to open a restaurant.
“I was looking to make a change,” Simons said, “but I kept saying it wouldn’t be a restaurant. I knew what a tough business it was.”
Yet, perhaps an ice cream store might work, say with a small snack counter with soup and chicken salad. But, that wave of nostalgia emerged and when Simons decided to lease the former restaurant at the corner of Laurens Street and Barnwell Avenue, “It kind of took off a little bit bigger than I planned.”
She’s still amazed by the Foundation’s Adaptive Use Award, presented in January by the organization’s awards committee chairman, Robert Stack. He and others on the committee sought nominations for the various awards and presented them to the Foundation Board for members’ approval.
“The conversion of the property really has seemed to bring that end of town to life,” Stack said. “Adaptive use is basically for that specific purpose – to take something that is not working and adding value to the downtown. That got my eye.”
Simons, too, is thrilled by the location and the building, which is owned by Steve Black, the Screenprint Factory owner next door.
“I wanted to recreate my childhood, and it really worked out,” Simons said.
The terrazzo flooring under the old carpet is the same as the old pharmacy in Saluda. The tables and stools came from an Ohio company that specializes in retro furnishings, and she was able to find the tin ceiling from another firm. The seats, already in the building, look great after upholstering. Even the milkshake machine is wonderfully ancient and efficient, purchased at the antique shop Singing Hills in North Augusta.
In addition to the Southern and modern cooking, Simons also has egg cream on the menu – a classic Northern drink that has delighted a lot of retirees and visitors from the colder climates and has won over the South Carolina natives.
Simons surely received her favorite compliment from her daughter Whitney, who is scheduled to start dental school at the Medical University of South Carolina in the fall.
“I come here almost every day,” Whitney said. “I love it and wouldn’t go anywhere else.”
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT In 2012, Betsy Simons opened her popular retro restaurant, Betsy's on the Corner, in downtown Aiken. The restaurant was awarded by the Aiken Historic Foundation in January for its success in adaptive use.×
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT Whitney Simons enjoys spending time and eating lunch at her mother’s restaurant, the award-winning Betsy’s on the Corner.×