"We're in the middle of nowhere," said Carl Cofer, owner of The Pigeon Mountain Grill. "You've got to find this place."
Indeed. The Pigeon Mountain Grill is at the junction of highways 193 and 341, locally called Davis Crossroads, surrounded by the hills and pastures of rural Walker County, Georgia. Cofer in fact opened the restaurant as an adjunct to his cattle farm, housing it in a converted cabin that he built in 1980 and added onto over the years.
Cofer's grass-fed beef figures prominently on The Pigeon Mountain Grill's menu, and he also sells it by the pound using the restaurant as a distribution point. The restaurant owes its existence, Cofer explains, to the fact he raises longhorn cattle "just like John Wayne used to have." The longhorns kept having babies and he needed something to do with them.
"They didn't like them at the stockyards because the horns get in the way, so I said, I'll sell 'em over here as hamburger," said Cofer. "I can get twice as much for a cow as I can at the stockyard."
Cofer, before he became a restaurateur a commercial real estate lawyer in Atlanta, was speaking with The Dade Planet late Saturday afternoon, The Planet having stopped by The Pigeon Mountain Grill for a salad and a chat.
Now, what would The Dade Planet, which, as its masthead proclaims, "delivers local Dade County, Georgia, news and dynamite features to Wildwood, Trenton and the Rising Fawn Metro Area," be doing at a restaurant that is not only in the middle of nowhere but in the middle of a nowhere not in Dade County?
The short answer is: drinking beer.
The Pigeon Mountain Grill has been serving beer and wine since Walker County voted in liquor by the drink in 2014--as Dade did only this past November.
But perhaps a word of background is in order:
When Dade voters approved liquor by the drink with a 60-40 margin in November, what they voted on was a simple question that seemed to ask if alcohol could be served in restaurants. But whenever the matter comes up for discussion, Dade County commissioners hark back to a resolution they passed in 2015 before they allowed the matter to go before the people.
"You've got to go back and look at the intent," said District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff, interviewed for an earlier Planet article. "It was to bring in these big chain restaurants."
The resolution, passed in 2015, specifies that alcohol sales be restricted to areas near the interstate served by sewer lines. Since the county does not propose to regulate Trenton proper (the town is governed by the Trenton City Commission, which has a beverage ordinance of its own), and since most of Dade does not have sewer lines, the resolution would effectively limit alcohol sales to the Highway 299 area at the I-59 Wildwood exit. It would effectively prevent any small, locally-owned restaurant on Lookout or Sand Mountain from serving alcoholic beverages.
What has Dade County got against small businesses? "The whole idea is so that there's not something like your old watering holes or honky-tonks, where you could go out here on 157 and you got a little room about this size and you got pretzels and whiskey," said Goff in another earlier interview.
Dade commissioners are now in the process of drafting an ordinance to regulate alcohol sales in county restaurants, a process that must be completed before they issue any liquor licenses. And given their tendency to equate privately-owned rural restaurants that sell alcoholic beverages with "honky-tonks," The Dade Planet found this a propitious time to investigate just such an establishment in neighboring Walker County.
What The Planet found at The Pigeon Mountain Grill was a small, sunny dining room where families ate with their children large and small, craft beers, locally grown food, and not a pretzel in sight.
There was country music on the sound system, but it was classic stuff: Them Old Cottonfields Back Home, The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia, like that. Anyway, in these parts, country music is something you can expect to hear at gas stations, funeral homes and the dentist's office.
Food at The Pigeon Mountain Grill is upmarket. Owner Cofer opted to keep going with the local-food precedent he had set with his homegrown beef. The Planet's entree salad was composed of artisan goat cheese and gourmet greens grown in local hothouses. The Planet's beer was a Long Day Lager from a Marietta, Ga., micro-brewery called Red Hare Brewing.
Prices are high-end-of-moderate, the "Longhorn Burger" costing $7.49, a half rack of pork ribs $11.99. Quality is high with no qualifiers. "Don't trust your soul to no back backwoods Southern lawyer," wailed the PA system, but it's probably safe to trust Cofer with your barbecue: His ribs were recently named Georgia's Best of the Best. Pork is also available by the pound at the Pigeon Mountain Grill.
Cofer says food, not alcohol, is the focus of the Grill, and that most people don't order beer or wine. "We play it down," he said. "We don't put out any beer signs."
But his wife, Susan Cofer, pointed out there was a demand for it. "A lot of people were complaining before we had the beer license that they'd been out hiking or biking and it would be really nice to have a cold beer," she said.
The Pigeon Mountain Grill, which recently celebrated its sixth anniversary, caters not only to the families who live in the coves and back roads nearby but to the tourists and outdoors enthusiasts who flock to the area for its hiking, mountain biking, equestrian trails, rock-climbing and other outdoors attractions. The Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Pocket Wildlife Management Area is a mecca for wildflower enthusiasts in the early spring.
Dade County, home of Cloudland Canyon State Park, the most-visited park in Georgia, is also an important outdoors tourism destination.
In any case, The Pigeon Mountain Grill is no honky-tonk and Carl Cofer doesn't think there's any danger of it being mistaken for one. "People who are looking for drinking and trouble and raising hell know what they're looking for," he said. "Don't look like a beer joint and you won't be one."
Cofer's advice to would-be proprietors of a rural restaurant like his is: Run! Restaurants are a lot of work and it's hard to find and keep good help, he said. Cofer isn't bragging about the money he's pulling in, either. He just about breaks even, he says, and keeps the place going because he feels it's a plus for the community.
His advice to the Dade County Commission as it drafts guidelines for issuing liquor licenses? "Signs all over the place flashing BEER" are the earmark of the honky-tonk, he says; so try regulating signage. "I don't know how you do that," he said. "Somebody must have done it somewhere."
More advice to local government: Realize that small businesses are assets to the county and try to help them, not hound them. "We got a beer license and they charged us $50," he said. "Then it went up to $100. The next year it went up to $600. We hardly sell 600 beers a year."
If you'd like to visit The Pigeon Mountain Grill, it's located at 18381 Highway 193 in Chickamauga and its telephone number is (706) 539-2999. It is open Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Friday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sunday noon-6 p.m.
The Planet can recommend the lager.