The unassuming little storefront on Laurens Street may be dwarfed by the hipper-than-thou buzz surrounding some of the upscale eateries that have joined them on the historic strip, but the regulars who love to lunch here haven’t heard it.
“This is a great place to come,” said Dr. Bill Prout, an 85-year-old former researcher for the Savannah River Site. He was having lunch on a Friday with his wife and his friend, Bob Romine.
“Yeah, but for a while they couldn’t make a Reuben. We had to tell them what’s what,” Romine said.
Co-owner Diane Rutherfurd knew precisely who was doing the ribbing when she heard about it.
“Dr. Prout is 80-ish and very tall and he was eating a Rueben. I know him as ‘Dale’s father,’ because I went to school with Dale,” she said. She takes good-natured issue with the joke about her Reubens. “We make the best Reuben in town.”
Even if Rutherfurd or her partner Teddy Milner don’t know you by name — or by family association — they’ll remember you, she said.
“There are so many people who come in and I don’t know their names. My kids will say, ‘Who’s that, Mom?’ and I’ll say ‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s Tuna Special, No Bacon,” she said with a warm laugh.
And it seems that she’s not the only person with a line on the folks in the long, narrow shop filled with kitschy salt-and-pepper sets and mismatched tableclothes. Their brand of easy-going and affectionate humor makes the Stoplight Cafe a great gossip spot. Locals lean over the tables to say hello to one another, or just wave across the room. They chat about upcoming expansions at the polo fields, the consolidation of three local towns into one new, large city and the hidden money from the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys that helped found the town and build a thriving horse industry.
For example, the Prouts and Mr. Romine have lived in Aiken since the 1950s, and they can give you the sweet and lowdown on history and current events in the area. They’ll also tell you how to watch the weather patterns to play the best game of golf. One secret: If it’s raining in Atlanta, play golf that day. It’ll hit Aiken the next.
“We have people who come in almost every day,” Rutherfurd said, such as local attorney Jim Verenes. “He pretty much will eat what we tell him he wants. Then we have people who come in day after day after day and eat the same thing.”
Friends and neighbors are still just the side order to the main menu filled with scrumptious sandwiches and satisfying soups, with prices that range from $4.50 for an andouille sausage dog to $6.50 for the “Roast Beast” sandwich. Their selection of breads includes all the usual suspects along with pita, croissant, pumpernickel and sourdough, nearly 15 in all. Seven cheeses top off their fine flat fare. Here’s a hint: the herb brie goes well with the tiny bottles of Gallo of Sonoma Chardonnay stocked in the Stoplight’s reach-in refrigerator. Or, if you’re feeling casual, bottles of Budweiser and chocolate milk flank the wine.
After almost 14 years in business — they’ll celebrate that anniversary on March 14 — they’ve added pizza and hamburgers to their list of offerings, but they’re not on the menu yet. Check out the board on the wall to the right of the counter to see what new delights they’ve cooked up, including their soups. The chili and the shrimp bisque come highly recommended by the folks crowded around the tightly packed tables, and their cookies will make you feel like you’re back in grandma’s kitchen.
Maybe one day it almost will be. Rutherfurd, who lauds their successful catering clientele as well, says she has no plans to retire from the business.
“It’s fun and it’s fulfilling — I can’t think of anything else that I would like to do,” she said. Over the years, most employees have stuck with the two partners, and they’ve developed relationships that are symbiotic. Rutherfurd even drops one of her employees off at her night job every evening.
“One that’s been there 13 years — everybody stays that works there, which in food is pretty rare. We have no turnover,” she said. “I love getting to see a lot of people and getting to hang out with a lot of people. Basically, having people leave happy.”
And you will.
Stoplight Deli is located at 119 Laurens St., Aiken. It’s open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 803-642-3354 or fax your order to 803-642-9545.