It all started at The Grit.
It really began a few years before that, on Jezebel.com, where I met Lauren in the peanut gallery, aka the comment section. Back then, Jez was the place for young feminist types to share their unsolicited hot takes and opinions on everything from political issues to pop culture. Lauren and I bonded over a shared love of Joan Jett and The Nutcracker, Six Feet Under (RIP Nate Fisher) and most importantly, writing. We were both aspiring authors! A fast friendship was born, and we stayed in touch even after we both abandoned Jezebel, choosing to put our word counts into something a bit more fruitful.
Fast forward a few years later: Lauren and I met in person in my hometown of Athens, Georgia in 2013. We met up with a couple of other friends, where we introduced them to Jittery Joes coffee, the part-magic-part-chaos that is the Athens downtown bar scene, and most importantly, The Grit, Athens’ infamous and legendary vegetarian eatery.
I can’t really overstate how important The Grit is to Athens. So much so that even die-hard non-vegheads extol its virtues, tucking ravenously into smelts and vegan cupcakes with abandon. So much so that the branded cookbooks and t-shirts fly off the shelves with regularity, and those who have long-since left Athens still come back just for a taste of that infamous Golden Bowl (rice, veggies, their infamous yeast gravy and that amazing tofu). So much so that celebrities flock there whenever they’re in town to play a show or rub shoulders with the Athens (and beyond) musical elite (fun little story: I used to work next door to The Grit, and one afternoon after a grueling transcription shift, I was walking to my car, head bent to look at my phone, and almost ran smack into Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins standing on the curb outside The Grit.
He was clearly waiting for someone, hands stuffed in the pockets of his corduroy pants, tall and lean and either very shy or very uninterested in being recognized; I clocked his body language and eked out an awkward “sorry” before shuffling off to my car to text everybody I knew that I’d just seen Mr. Melon Collie in the flesh. To this day, I wonder what he ordered). Corgan isn’t the only celeb who has sampled the delights at The Grit. In Grace Elizabeth Hale’s excellent book on the Athens Music Scene, Cool Town, she details some of the many local legends who have associations with The Grit, including Michael Stipe of R.E.M., and members of The B52’s.
So naturally, when my friend Lauren told me she was coming to Athens, I knew where I was taking her. And I was beyond delighted when she loved it (of course she did. Everyone does!). Over smelts and golden bowls and beer, our party of four talked and laughed and ate good food. It is a memory I’ll cherish. And in the years since, as Lauren and I became closer friends, both achieved our dream of getting published, and eventually decided to write a novel together, we’d still talk about The Grit. It was no surprise, then, that as we began to flesh out the characters and the outline for our book, Tomorrow and Tomorrow (which takes place largely in Athens) that we planned one very important, pivotal scene at The Grit. I don’t even know whose idea it was initially; mine or hers, it doesn’t matter, it was just always gonna be that way. That Lawrence MacLaren, “Larry M”, the handsome, perfect embodiment of the Athens musician/struggling artist/hipster who ends up turning everyone’s world upside down, would be a waiter at our favorite Athens eatery? I mean, obviously.
My upcoming novel So Long, Bobby, a solo venture of historical fiction (out February 2023 from Sword & Silk) takes place in Athens, too, and I really enjoyed leaning into that hometown feel. For Tomorrow and Tomorrow, I was delighted that Lauren was game to do it again. Our book is a lot of things: sexy, funny, camp, very rock ‘n roll, dark and macabre and SCARY – but more than anything, it’s just so quintessentially Athens. Our girls Mac and Duff are all over the Classic City; they run the place. In addition to writing songs over Mid-E Platters and Mondo Burritos at The Grit, they have red velvet lattes at Jittery Joes, play a show at The 40 Watt and both The Wild Rumpus (Athens’ annual Halloween parade) and Historic Athens’ Porchfest (an outdoor concert series; at the time of this writing my husband will have just played his second with his metal band Hypersleep!), have a heated band practice (another thing as Athens as The Arch – band drama) at Nuci’s Space and even rent an old house on Boulevard. We even wrote a very creepy scene that takes place at the Georgia Guidestones in Elberton, a few miles North of Athens.
You can imagine my shock and horror when The Georgia Guidestones got – quite literally – blown to smithereens back in July. We agonized for a bit before deciding to leave the scene in. I mean, why not? The monument’s sinister and as-yet-unsolved demise only adds to the overall mysteriousness, and is in keeping with the tone of the book – Tomorrow and Tomorrow is an adaptation of the Bard’s infamous Scottish Play, after all. Curses be damned!
But then. Oh, then. My beloved, The Grit, posted a simple and unassuming note on their social media recently. They would be closing their doors on October 7th, after decades of faithful and delicious service.
No more amaretto cake? Say it ain’t so!
On the one hand, I wasn’t surprised. Like most born-and-raised Athenians, I’ve seen some of the best of them go (RIP Barnett’s book stand, Allen’s bar, and The Grill, where my husband worked and played hacky sack as a teen). Many an artsy college town have seen their beloved institutions fall to the enterprise of wealthy developers and out-of-town investors. Mom and Pops disappear, beloved local haunts shut their doors as parking garages and highrises go up. One by one, our old reliables fall, go out of business, retire. But The Grit is different. This one really hurts! And not just because the golden bowl is so damned good (like, no, really. I make a mean Grit-style tofu, but like, what do y’all put in that yeast gravy? Fairy dust?). It’s because The Grit stands for everything that makes Athens so beautifully, deliciously Athens: a melting pot of flavors, of personalities, talents and cultures, all stirred together in one delicious pot of southern vegetarian goodness. A place of storied history, where the outsider and the popular kid can break (Ted’s) bread together. And maybe go see a show after. A place where we all belong.
They also have the best mac n’ cheese I’ve ever had in my life. You know, just as an aside.
God, I’m going to miss that place. And judging from the outcry after their announcement (even Laura Jane Grace weighed in!), I’m not the only one.
Lauren Emily Whalen:
When I think of The Grit, I think of the cheese sandwich that would change my life.
Unlike Lillah, I only went there once. Hell, I’ve only been to Athens, Georgia once, on this mini-Jezebel meetup trip in 2013. Lillah and I already had a tight bond (thank you, Joan Jett and dear departed Nate Fisher!), but we hadn’t even spoken on the phone, let alone met in person before then. Keep in mind, kids, back then “FaceTime” and “Zoom” were called “Skype” and I thought Skype was weird.
I’m from Chicago: “born and reared,” as my dad would say, in Illinois, and I’ve lived in the Windy City on and off, mostly on, since I moved here at 18 to go to college. Where Athens is solidly southern, Chicago is solidly midwest. Yes, we are city people who are constantly in a rush and competing over who is the coolest, but we’ll also give you directions when you’re stranded in the middle of the sidewalk on State Street. Two of my previous three novels, Satellite and Two Winters, are partially set in Chicago: the real places where actual people live, eat and work, as well as fictional places based on the real ones. Just like Athenians, Chicagoans know our worth, and we know our places.
Since I was little and accompanying my trucker dad and uncles to the Last Chance Restaurant—its real name—in Waverly, Illinois, I’ve had an affinity for the real shit. Diners, drive-ins and dives that Guy Fieri has made famous on the Food Network, and the ones he hasn’t pounced on yet, where the plates are chipped, the food is delicious and your server has a well-earned attitude. Depending on the location, you’ve seen that server in town beauty pageants, the local bustling theater scene, or rocking out onstage at a club. Authentic to its core.
Here in Chicago, my current fave is Southport Grocery (slightly more upper crust but oh my god, the breakfast hash, and you must get a cupcake to go), as well as The Bourgeois Pig (cried over my writing to my sympathetic instructor, nommed ham sandwiches with a pal who’d recently moved back from LA, and got an incredibly, rich delicious brownie when seating was closed during 2020 lockdown). Nookie’s Tree is a close runner up, both for its complimentary soup (at least in the early aughts) and memorable nights with my best friend when I knew I wanted to move back to the city but wasn’t quite there yet. Still on the lookout for a new favorite diner as I continue to mourn the loss of Clarke’s on Belmont and especially Melrose (IYKYK). Melrose is where I stumbled for late-night fries with my best friend after Musical Theater Monday at our favorite gay bar, where I tearfully exchanged Christmas gifts with my two best buds after losing another best bud earlier that year, and where I got a phone call casting me in a show that would change my life.
You know. Real shit. With fries.
I’d never been to The Grit before that night nine years ago, but I’d heard of the place in Athens where the rock stars hang out because the vibes are just that awesome. And when I stepped in the door and checked out the quirky decor (actually quirky, not TGI Friday’s fake quirky), I knew I’d found the real shit once again.
Anyway, the sandwich. The Grit calls it (I guess I should say called, sob) a Smelt. Think of the best grilled cheese you’ve ever eaten, all carbs and cheese and comfort, with a few more ingredients if you want them. That’s the Smelt, and it’s where my eyes immediately went when we opened our menus. Even though I was sorely tempted by the Golden Bowls, my mind was made up. I asked for spinach in mine, and when our friend Megan went “mmmmhmmm”, I knew I’d made the right call.
You’ve heard of “party in my mouth,” “foodgasm” and all the usual cliches we writers try to avoid. Well, my cheese and spinach Smelt was all of those. I’m not a food writer, obviously, so I’ll leave it up to your imagination. Suffice it to say I was having dirty thoughts. About a sandwich. And when we had chocolate peanut butter cake for dessert, the dirty thoughts intensified.
When Lillah and I decided to cowrite Tomorrow and Tomorrow in 2021, eight years after that fateful Smelt and during the height of Omicron, we knew we wanted it to feel authentic. We wanted all of the characters, from our narrators Marian and Duff to publicist Becs who never appears in person on the page, to feel unabashed about being themselves. It comes naturally to us as writers: Lillah is a cabin-dwelling Goth and I’m a dork with pink hair who models nude at art schools. Even where we’ve chosen to make our homes reflects this confidence in being imperfect, messy and real: all of these adjectives describe Athens and Chicago, two cities that are ever-changing but always fully themselves.
It only made sense to set a pivotal scene at The Grit: Marian’s birthday, and the night The Scottish Play band meets Lawrence McLaren, or Larry M, the current server and wannabe band manager who will set their lives on a chaotic, often bloody, course:
“Can I get you ladies anything else?” the hot waiter asked as we dug into our food, and Duff smiled slyly, her eyes meeting mine. Don’t do it, I mouthed, my eyes flashing a warning, but she paid it no mind.
“A slice of the death by chocolate cake please, and three forks,” she said in a cheerful voice, gesturing at me. “A big slice. It’s her birthday.” I shot her an eat-shit-and-die look, and she winked at me.
The waiter’s eyes widened and his face broke into a grin that seemed to block out the sun for a moment, it was so bright and wide. And sexy. His dimples flashed and I had a moment of deja vu. Hadn’t I seen this guy before somewhere? A flash of memory, of the beautiful blue kilt and that dimpled smile, pinged at my brain and then faded away.“Well, whaddaya know! The birthday girl! How old are we?”
“If I told you I’d have to kill you,” I joked, my face flushing to match Quincy’s.
“Oh, come on. You can’t be older than twenty-five.” He said with a laugh.
“I’ll tell you...but only if you give me your number.” I said, gasping a little at my own gall, the sharp intake of breath causing me to cough and sputter. Quincy and Duff dissolved into laughter and I wanted to crawl under the table. I couldn’t even squeak out a line without choking on it. I was such a loser.
But the hot waiter didn’t miss a beat. Nor did he break eye contact as he ripped a sheet off his notepad, and scribbled out a phone number. “I’ll go you one better,” he said with a smooth smile as he handed it to me. “I’ll give you my name, too.” He extended his hand to shake mine, his skin warm and electric as I put my hand in his. “I’m Lawrence MacLaren.”
“Marian Shepherd.” I said, my voice husky. “I go by Mac sometimes. And I’m twenty-two.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Marian,” he said, ignoring the nickname. “I hope you have the happiest of birthdays, and I hope you’ll call that number, sooner rather than later. Lemme get you that cake. On the house, of course, for your birthday.” His smile was warm and flirtatious as he turned on his heel and headed towards the kitchen.
We didn’t choose The Grit as a setting for Tomorrow and Tomorrow just because that’s where Lillah and I had dinner for the first time after four years of online friendship. Though my Smelt changed my life, it goes deeper than that. The Grit, soon to be no more, and our novel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, are both achingly, messily and unabashedly, real shit.