Stop Where the Parking Lot's Full. . . .

Mr. B's, Lydia

by Aïda Rogers

EDITOR'S NOTE: "Stop Where the Parking Lot's Full" is a column that appears in each issue of Sandlapper Magazine, featuring wonderful dining venues across the Palmetto State. Here's an example. If you find it interesting, you may want to peruse our back issue listings for information about previous columns.

There comes a time in every woman's life when you have to do what you have to do. For Sara K. Wilds of Hartsville, that time came right after Christmas.

"Come to lunch at Mr. B's" was the edict from her good friend Nancy Nickles, who had just heard the same thing from me. Sara K. dropped everything, including her husband's lunch. "I told him he was on his own."

Such is the devotion to Mr. B's, a family-style restaurant in Lydia, between Bishopville and Hartsville. Lydia is a small community probably best known for its premier restaurant and a beautiful Victorian-style Methodist church. But as Nancy points out, "if you have something good, people will come." And come they do, from all over the Midlands and Pee Dee. Some come every day.

"That's why we always have something different on the buffet," says Bobby Goff, who runs Mr. B's with his wife Reba. The buffet is at lunch only, and you can find a wealth of Carolina cooking on it. All kinds of meats and vegetables are available, and a few constants - rice, vegetable soup, fatback and fried chicken. The vegetable soup is so popular people take it to friends and family in the hospital. The fried chicken is so popular Sara K. didn't tell her husband where she was going because he'd be jealous.

With six sons between them, Sara K. and Nancy can appreciate Mr. B's. Though their boys are grown now, they remember how easy it was to bring them here when they were younger. They could eat all they wanted and not worry about making too much mess. Mr. B's prides itself on its family friendliness: No alcohol is served, children younger than 5 eat free and seniors get a discount. Reba and Bobby have twins, and Reba remembers the suppers she missed when they were babies. That's why there's a rocking chair in the back. "I'll rock children so their mothers can eat," Reba says. "I've walked 'em in the yard. We love for families to bring little children."

And little children love to come. One young regular became so distraught at another restaurant on vacation that she had a tantrum, crying for "Micker B's," Reba says. All three of her children bought cars working for the restaurant. She points to her granddaughter Caroline, a toddler: "There's a future waitress right there!"

The Goffs bought Mr. B's from Reba's uncle, Jeryl Best, seven years ago. Before that, the restaurant had made a reputation for seafood, which is served in the evenings along with chicken, barbecue and steak. Mr. B's is not named for "Best," however, but for Doug Beckham, his cook. Beckham is dead now, but his recipes still are used, as is the same iron skillet the restaurant opened with in 1969.

At night, everything on the menu is cooked to order, right down to the last hushpuppy. The salad bar has a selection most don't, including all kinds of pasta and fruit salads and chicken salad. Everything's homemade - salad dressings, tartar sauce, cocktail sauce.

At our table, we're having second helpings of fried fish, fried chicken, rice and gravy, green beans, lima beans, mashed potatoes and my favorite: sautéed chicken livers and onions. Peach cobbler, banana pudding and those wonderful, flat, "southren" biscuits bring us to belt-loosening reality: If you're going to Mr. B's, be comfortable. The all-you-can-eat buffet, including drink, dessert and tax, is $5.80 per person.

Prices are equally reasonable at night. Small "Fisherman Platters" are $9.95; large are $11.95. Frog legs - $10.95 and $13.95 - are available, too. "It's the best seafood around," says Nancy, who's "eaten everywhere I've heard of." To her, the clam chowder at Mr. B's is exceptional, and people in Darlington and Lee counties are lucky to have sea-food "as good as Murrells Inlet" so close to home.

Count on a crowd every day for lunch, particularly Sunday. People line up outside the door. The restaurant has be-come so popular the Goffs have expanded the building and the hours. Since the Sunday staff miss church, Reba leads devotionals those mornings.

Railroad engineers like Mr. B's so much they've stopped on the tracks behind for a meal. Law enforcement officers landed a helicopter across the street and came in. Law enforcement people come a lot. "I don't worry about being broken into," Reba says.

David Beasley was a regular before he became governor; Reba's keeping his fried chicken warm.

Meanwhile, Sara K. and Nancy are debating what to tell their husbands they did for lunch. Says Nancy about hers: "He'll be so mad when he finds out."

Mr. B's, Highway 15, Lydia; (803) 332-5560. Lunch every day but Saturday; supper every day but Sunday and Monday. Reservations accepted. Smoking allowed; nonsmoking room available.

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