The building looked the same after all these years, though the downtown had clearly suffered the same fate as so many rural small towns. I waited until nearly 11 in the morning to come into town as I knew that is when the restaurant would open, if it still opened at all.
Imagine my surprise as nearly every parking place was taken when I arrived at the Circle Grill Restaurant in Graceville, Florida. I went in and got the next to last available table. It was like stepping back in time.
Anyone my age or even close to it from the Dothan area would know of the Circle Grill. They had a full menu, but their claim to fame was fried shrimp. In my memory, they were the best I had ever had and I was determined to find out if that was still true.
As a kid, all As on a report card meant my parents or grandparents would take you to the Circle Grill as a reward. It was where we went for most special occasions. Even though my birthday was during peanut season, my parents would usually make sure I had a couple of hours to get that full order of shrimp no matter how busy we were
When Ernest and I were in our eating prime we would order three seafood platters between the two of us. The full order of 12 large shrimp just didn’t fill up those hungry boy appetites. On Thursday, I could barely get down a medium order of nine.
The interior was still a circle, as was the outside. There are no windows and the only natural light from outside came from the front and back doors. There were pictures of pelicans on the wall, a bit odd as Graceville is pretty far inland for that bird to fly.
The room seemed very dark, but we always ate there at night, so maybe I didn’t notice the low lighting so much back then. Other than that, it was pretty much as I remembered.
The menu on the table could have been the same in use since the 1960s, but the order taker, a very friendly lady named Chastity, took my order on an iPad. Technology has even invaded the Circle Grill.
Shrimp comes with a salad bar. As soon as I saw the dressing, I remembered it from 50 years ago. It is like a thousand island dressing without the islands. It was just as I recollected and I put a generous portion on my salad to savor that taste.
The shrimp did not disappoint, nor did the tartar sauce. A light batter with very little grease coated the largest fried shrimp you are likely to find anywhere. It was as good as I recalled, perhaps even better.
I had half a yeast roll, just to compare the taste to my memory. It was good and the butter made it even better.
After finishing off the plate, I made my way to the counter. There used to be a container of mints that cost two cents, or maybe a nickel. You cannot buy anything in the world for five cents anymore, even at the Circle Grill.
Satisfied from the meal, I briefly drove around the town. The old Gold Kist peanut shelling plant, once the largest in the world, has been razed and is no longer around. The old drug store with the painted mural saying “since 1906” is long closed, though the sign still says “Home of the Old Fashioned Milkshake”.
A new Family Dollar stands where we once bought automobiles from Jones Motor Company. Most of the other storefronts are closed.
But standing proudly in the same spot since 1948, you will find the Circle Grill. It is a testament to the fact that good food will attract customers no matter where it is located.
Chances are you have heard about the Circle Grill. Many have eaten there during their youth. Even those in Georgia have most likely heard others tell of the big shrimp fried to perfection in Graceville.
If you have not been in a while, give it a shot. It is 45 minutes from Donalsonville and well worth the drive. It will give you a chance to see that some good things never change.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]