From the carpeting that lines the parking lot to the hundreds of pictures that give life to its interior walls, much can be said about the eclectic look of the Old School Diner.
But it is more than just the ambiance that lures Coastal Georgia residents and tourists to the hidden gem. And while the perfectly cooked shrimp, saucy ribs and delectable hush puppies are what people hem and haw over, it’s the man behind the food who truly symbolizes the restaurant’s soul.
The eatery is nestled along the bend of the South Newport River, not far from the pristine Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge. Chef Jerome Brown doesn’t just think of his diner as a place to have a meal. It is his home away from home, and — should they need a special sanctuary — his customers’ home as well. Those who frequent the restaurant are not just closed-out bar tabs and paid receipts — he sees them as members of his family.
Born in Waycross, Webster Tyrone Jerome Brown cultivated his cooking skills at the Buccaneer Club in Townsend. He still was a teenager when he got the gig, which he worked for 31 years.
Feeling he had learned every aspect of the job but was not given the opportunity to advance, Chef Brown left and briefly traveled around the world cleaning boilermakers. He also worked for a wood company in Florida. The ability to work with his hands is a gift from above, he says, and his passion to leave an artistic imprint on the world was apparent when he settled in McIntosh County and opened the diner in 2005.
“I’m an artist, and this is my art work,” he says, scanning the hodge-podge of movie posters, drawings and paintings inside the main dining room. The exterior is bright pink, and a collection of hub caps and Georgia license plates adorns the building, making it look like an antique store. Dated farm tools and old pans hang above the entrance.
And, of course, there is the parking lot — a mish-mash of carpets thrown across the dirt driveway cover every inch of visible space.
“A lot of people want to know about the carpet,” he says with a slight grin. “It’s simple. I don’t like sand in the building, and for the women who wear high heel shoes … they won’t get stuck in the sand and twist their ankles and fall and hurt themselves. And if they happen to fall on the carpet, they are less likely to get hurt because the carpets will cushion their fall.”
Brown says he uses the skills he picked up at the Buccaneer Club and adds his own flair to the recipes on his menu.
“I started out with a two-car garage, one office, one dining room and no kitchen. I had two little fryers with two small baskets where I would cook up my French fries, chicken, shrimp and whatever. I branched out and built this room here, and I named it the Ben Affleck room because he was the first celebrity that came,” the chef says, all while stroking his beard and basking in the warmth of his wood-burning fire place. He relaxes on a sofa next to the fire during a rare break from his work routine.
Chef Jerome says the actor’s visit in 2010 was an answered prayer and paved the way for the continued success of the diner. Since then, it has undergone two expansions and construction of an outdoor dining gazebo, which he built himself using pieces of wood form an old floating dock someone planned to discard.
Affleck placed the little diner on the map and still occasionally drops by for dinner when staying at his Hampton Island vacation home in Liberty County, Chef Jerome says.
But it’s his loyal customers — who have spread the word about the chef’s unique style, delicious cooking and warm hospitality — for whom he truly feels blessed.
“Money doesn’t make me, everyone who comes out here and enjoys my food — that is what makes me,” he says. “When folks don’t come to visit, it makes me sad.”
He steps into the kitchen and begins to prepare some shrimp. The chef works alone when it comes to his menu items, and he has his reasons.
“I don’t trust anyone else cooking my food,” he says with a laugh. His work days begin at 4 a.m., and he doesn’t mind putting in the long hours.
“I like to come in early and get the pies and stuff out of the way,” he says. “I don’t want people to be around me when I’m doing my thing — they want to ask questions, try and get my secrets like, ‘What did you just put in there?’ And my response is always ‘A little bit of this and a little bit of that.’”
The diner also is his private chapel.
“This place is my peace of mind, my spirituality,” he says. “When I get lonely or feeling down, I just walk in here and look at the walls and look at the faces and look at the smiles … I look at those and I know I’m doing something right.”
Another thing he says he did right was marrying his wife of 38 years, Lauretta Brown. She was the one who convinced him to open the diner and go back to what he does best — cooking.
And it helped him heal as the customers began to pick up pieces of his heart once held by others.
“I don’t care if the world knows, but most of my immediate family threw me away,” he says, his smile slowly fading. “Hardly any of them are around me because I cut them off. I said enough is enough — my wife keeps telling me you can’t save the world … some of my family was just a bad influence, and I trusted too many of my family members … I adopted the community. The people who come here are my family.”
So he threw his passion and soul into the diner and tempts his newfound family with mouth-watering meals fit for a king and big enough for a royal court.
Inside the main dining room, the chef points out a cluster of photos.
“I enjoy meeting other people. I try and come out here and greet every customer, and I ask my waitresses to take all the customers’ pictures, especially if I’m busy,” he says, adding that he tries to pose with all his customers unless he gets stuck in the kitchen. “I want to know who came to the restaurant and I take the pictures so I can remember their faces. I remember one gentleman who came in around two to three years ago and I was able to tell him where he would be able to find his picture hanging on the wall.”
He points out a wheelchair positioned in the corner of the dining room and says most people need it after they order his infamous wheelchair platter. The platter serves a party of two or larger and consists of whatever the chef chooses.
“Trust your chef,” he says. The motto also is on the menu, and many follow it. They know the platter is bound to include a little bit of everything on the menu. Should a patron leave any room, the chef will come back to the table, pull up a seat and offer his dessert menu for the day.
“We had two couples come in, and they sat at this table by the fire. They ordered the wheelchair platter, and the one guy had two pieces of my strawberry cheesecake, and when he got through with that last piece of cheese cake, he had to come and lay down,” Chef Jerome says, laughing. “He sat right here by the fire and all of a sudden, he went to sleep, and that was beautiful. I like for folks to come here and feel like they are at home. I tell a lot of my customers, ‘If y’all don’t feel like driving home, y’all can go to my house,’ and I really mean it. … That’s how I roll and that’s not going to change.”
Photos by Geoff Johnson