For once, my timing was perfect. If I’d shown up a week earlier I’d have been staring at a hundred feet of empty street.
Instead, I was wading through a mob of people laughing, talking, shopping, and smiling as they waited to be seated at one of the South’s most iconic eateries.
After suffering through a pandemic, staffing woes, and renovation delays, the Whistle Stop Cafe in Juliette, Georgia is once again open for business. It didn’t take long for the news to spread.
The town is named after Juliette McCracken, the daughter of a railroad engineer who once drove the local run. Like so many small towns, Juliette started drying up when bigger, better highways made small town passenger rail service impractical and eventually, obsolete.
Juliette was on life support in 1991 when Hollywood hot shots decided to make a film based on Fannie Flagg’s 1987 best seller “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.”
Filmmakers had a story, they had a script, they had the actors lined up. They needed a location. With only four residents and a few buildings held together by duct tape, kudzu, and prayers, Juliette was perfect.
Sagging structures were propped up and refurbished. New buildings, including a bogus bank, were built. Faster than you can say, ”The secret’s in the sauce,” Juliette, Georgia was transformed into Whistle Stop, Alabama.
These days, the town celebrates its Georgia roots. And a few old-time traditions are still observed.
At high noon, a Norfolk Southern freight train rolls by on tracks laid not thirty feet from the cafe. The engineer waves and blasts the modern-day version of a train whistle.
The passing train adds authenticity to the scene, but the sound most people listen for is the voice of the woman who pops out of the restaurant’s front door from time to time and hollers the name of the next person or group to be served.
The main drag is only one block long, but business is booming. The cluster of stores offer up everything from sweets to souvenirs to Mississippi mud pies.
The crowd is elbow to elbow and many shops have a waiting line. Dressed in everything from ragged jeans to gaudy jewels, and sporting smiles a mile wide, visitors seem determined to mind their manners and get along.
The group includes Starr Adcock and Kelli Alley, a pair of Tennessee women who have known each other since the third grade. Starr now lives in Coalfield, Tennessee. Kelli calls Oneida, Tennessee home.
The two were soaking up the sun at St. Simons Island on Georgia’s Atlantic coast when word arrived that the Whistle Stop Cafe had just reopened. Juliette was only a ten-mile detour from their route home via I-75.
“When we heard they were open we knew we had to stop,” Kelli says. “We both love that movie.”
Starr held up a bag bulging with souvenirs and said, “The shopping is good, too.”
I asked if they minded a long wait for such a modest meal.
“Not a bit,” Kelli said. “Eating is part of the experience. We’ll sit here until we sample those fried green tomatoes.”
Her sentiment was sincere, but deep down, nobody comes here for the food. They come to remember a piece of fiction in which good triumphs over evil, tough people overcome hard times, and bad guys don't just get taken down, but barbequed and eaten up.
A visit to Juliette and the Whistle Stop Cafe delivers not just fond memories but a momentary escape from worldly woes that can darken anyone’s day.
Sometimes it seems that only imaginary places possess that power. Walt Disney sells the same thing on a larger scale, but the crowd gathered in Juliette wouldn't be a bit happier if Snow White or Donald Duck showed up.
No one fusses, no one fights, no one seems antsy or anxious. Even the youngsters are well-behaved. Seldom does the Hollywood touch linger so sweetly.
The only frowns I see are on the faces of two men waiting in line for a shot at the single-seater unisex restroom. When a lady steps out and smiles sweetly, they remember their manners, say hello, and wish her a pleasant afternoon.
After visiting a few more stores, talking to a few more people, and scoring a few more photos, I move on.
I’m not whistling. But I’m sure glad I stopped.
Alex McRae is a writer and ghostwriter and author of “There Ain’t No Gentle Cycle on the Washing Machine of Love.” He can be reached at: email@example.com.