Food fit for the King: Elvis Presley ate here
As a country boy epicurean, Elvis Presley was without peer. It was he who brought the grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich into the mainstream. His penchant for cheeseburgers was legendary. And if the recorded soundtrack for the Graceland tour is to be believed, it was Elvis Presley who, some time in the ’60s, ate meatloaf for dinner every night for six months.
And let’s not even get into the doughnuts.
So in February 1955 when Elvis sat down to a meal at the Brightwood Inn after a show at Williams High School, his order was predictable.
‘“He had a hamburger with lettuce and tomato,’” Lucille Little recalls, ‘“and a glass of milk.’”
The Brightwood Inn was old-school even in 1955. It was opened way back in 1936 on a stretch of Highway 70 just outside Burlington as a drive-in dinette, with a breakfast menu and car service and famous cheeseburgers that would inspire customers from miles around to rattle their jalopies into the gravel parking lot. The current owner, Paul Treadway, took over in 1950. Lucille came on a couple of years later, and she was there when Presley sat down in the corner booth that night with a woman whom Lucille didn’t recognize.
‘“She had one Miller beer,’” Lucille says. ‘“Back then only women drank Miller. It was called ‘the Champagne of Beers.’ Men did not drink it.’”
Lucille, 74, stands a few hairs under five feet tall and she moves through the rooms of the inn not quickly but with remarkable efficiency and uncommon good humor.
Now she’s standing behind the front bar, a slip of mint green Formica with vinyl swivel stools fixed to the floor, a jar of pickled eggs on top and an astounding amount of clutter on the shelves behind it ‘— old soda bottles and beer cans, collectible statuettes, souvenir mugs and a gum rack advertising brands that went out with the Reagan administration (remember Freshen-Up gum with a burst of flavor in the middle?). On the walls are framed and yellowed newspaper clippings about the inn, photos from the joint’s heyday and a hornet’s nest that looms in the corner. An old Technicolor Wurlitzer jukebox stands against a wall. From the ceiling hangs about a hundred baseball caps sealed in smoke-stained plastic bags and also old chandeliers bearing logos from the beer companies. Budweiser. Schlitz.
‘“This is Paul’s clutter,’” Lucille says. ‘“People just bring it to him’… like this here.’” She pulls a small red statuette of a smiling devil down from a shelf. ‘“It says, ‘I’m a horny little devil.’ I don’t like that. I don’t go for that kind of stuff at all. I don’t have to lower my morals because I work in a bar.’”
Lucille has been making drinks here for more than 50 years, at first in the front bar and then in the lounge they added on in 1981, a cozy paneled and upholstered adjunct throwback with dental moldings on the wooden back bar and random bric-a-brac nestled among the liquor bottles: photos, stuffed animals, souvenir steins, jars of candy. It’s kind of like grandma’s house, only grandma slings Long Island iced teas and slides Budweisers along the bar.
‘“I didn’t want to be a bartender,’” she says. ‘“I didn’t have a choice. The bartender quit and they said, ‘You better learn.””
Lucille runs a clean bar. No swearing. No man bashing. A sign inside the door compels patrons to tuck in their shirts. One outside proclaims that no tank tops are allowed.
‘“I don’t like tank tops,’” Lucille says. ‘“I don’t like to see a woman’s bosoms. I can look in the mirror and see all I want.
‘“I don’t like loose women hanging around,’” she adds.
It’s quiet in here this afternoon’… quiet enough so that you can hear the television set all the way across the bar. The crowds, which once lined up at the door to get inside, have aged out or gotten married or moved away.
‘“A lot of my people are sick or dead,’” Lucille says.
They don’t serve breakfast anymore and not much happens at lunchtime. And the menu, once lush with homemade dishes like oyster stew and baked flounder with crabmeat, has been pared down to a few choice items like steaks cut from their private stock of black Angus cattle and 9-inch pizzas that do well in the bar.
‘“I begged Paul to get chicken wings here,’” Lucille says, ‘“but he won’t do it.’” She throws her hands in the air.
But things are changing out here in the county. The Stony Creek developments, large clusters of single-family homes, condos and McMansions, are steadily rising out of the farmland, encroaching on the Brightwood’s land and creating a sense of expectancy and disquietude among the regulars.
Over the next six years, according to the developers, there will be 2,500 new homes in the area, with the first wave set to move in during the next 12 months. What will become of the Brightwood Inn, the only place that serves liquor, food and beer for miles around, when the cows come home?
‘“I don’t mind it,’” Lucille says with a trace of weariness, ‘“but I like my countryside.’”
Paul’s been out running errands but he’s back now, scuffling around in the back rooms, shifting the piles of clutter and preparing for the day’s business. Lucille regards him with equal parts exasperation and affection.
‘“He’s my boyfriend,’” she says hesitantly. ‘“I don’t know what we are.’”
Paul and Lucille hooked up shortly after she came to work for him in 1952 when she was a 22 year old with four children.
‘“We’ve been together for 50 years,’” she says, ‘“but we never spent the night in the same house. I’m from the old school.’”
Just as the wintertime dusk sets in and the white neon signs on the side of the building kick on, advertising ‘“Choice Steaks’” as well as ‘“Sizzling Steaks’” to the burgeoning countryside, Lucille gets her first customer: James Brown, not the Godfather of Soul but a semi-retired veterinarian from the area. ‘“No singing, no dancing,’” he says.
‘“You got any drinks left?’” he asks as he takes a stool.
She goes about the business of building a Bloody Mary and they trade gossip about taxes, dogs and other regular customers. Eventually the subject of real estate comes up. It’s hard not to think about it when the developments are rising out of the pastures even as they speak. They speculate about the changing nature of the community and the future of the restaurant.
At a break in the conversation Lucille shuffles to the back rooms. Brown watches her go.
‘“I don’t know how many years Paul and Lucille have lived here,’” he says, ‘“but they’re gonna have to pull ’em out by the heels.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.