by Sandra Stringer
There’s a little house on Grimball Road that is home to Workmen’s Café, a place that has become known for what proprietor Angie Bellinger calls “a combination of southern food and soul food…comfort food”.
There are a lot of warm memories that led to what the restaurant is today, and Angie sat down at a table in her café on a Saturday and talked about it with great fondness.
Moving to the country
Angie Bellinger started out living downtown near the Citadel. She and her mother, Ruby L. Bellinger, ended up moving into Angie’s grandfather’s house on James Island some years after he had passed away.
Angie didn’t want to move to James Island. She was 13 years old, and it was 1975. Her mother Ruby “was passionate about that house. She dragged me over here, kicking and screaming”. Angie proclaimed to her mother, “I’m not going to the country!”
Back then the Grimball Road neighborhood was mostly farm land, with cabbage and tomato fields, cemeteries and a lodge hall. There were no stores or really anything to interest a teenager.
Many years later her mother asked her if she wanted to move back into the city. Angie told her mother she wanted to stay on James Island. “I didn’t realize the space, the privacy that came with living out here”. Of course, that’s changing now, and she talked about the fact that the shopping center next to her building will be torn down soon and will be replaced with a Publix and a CVS.
Learning the basics at home
She began her cooking education when she was 14. “It was just my mom and I. My brothers and sisters were all married and gone. And I went to her one day and said “I want to learn how to cook”. She said, “Really?” and I said “Yes, ma’am”.”
She taught Angie how to cook, beginning with the basics. Ruby told her daughter, “As long as you have rice, grits, flour, sugar, eggs and milk and a piece of meat, you have a meal. And it’ll help if you have an onion as well.”
“One day my mother said, “Your pie crust is so much better than mine.”’ It was a moment of real pride for Angie.
Ruby Bellinger passed away 12 years ago and Angie misses her to this day. “She was my best friend. That woman was the rock of our family.”
In course of her lifetime, Ruby Bellinger did housekeeping, sold life insurance for North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, and started the church next door to Workmen’s Café which had a book store in the front. She owned a restaurant, a nightclub on Mosquito Beach, and a little neighborhood store.
Returning to James Island
Angie was living in Ohio when her mother asked her to come home. “She said those three words to me that only a mother can say to make you feel guilty: I miss you.”
So in January of 2001 Angie moved back to James Island. Workmen’s Café was only just past the conception stage at that point and didn’t open until September of that year.
Ruby Bellinger told Angie what to sell because she knew what had sold well when she had her own restaurant. Ruby told Angie, “We’ve got to have lima beans and rice…we have to have fried chicken and pork chops…she gave me an idea of what to put on the menu.”
One hurdle turned out to be lima beans. “One day it would be too thick, the next day too watery…” so Ruby finally took over the cooking of lima beans and told Angie, “let me cook your lima beans for you ‘til you get it right”.
When Angie was growing up, lima beans, collard greens and rice were a staple of their diet. When she went to Indiana State to get her Master’s degree in photography, she vowed she’d never cook those three items, so she didn’t have the years of practice it takes to learn the art of cooking them.
Eventually, with a great deal of guidance from her mother, she finally got the lima beans right. This led to another proud moment for Angie when her mother said, “man, your lima beans taste better than mine!”
A menu made of comfort
Angie’s go-to menu items – lima beans, rice, fried chicken and pork chops – have been on the menu every day since the restaurant opened. Her meatloaf makes a regular reappearance.
After a time she started creating her own dishes, which she was initially reluctant to do because she wanted to adhere to her mother’s imagining of what the Café would be.
Today she runs the whole show on her own. She cooks the food every morning, serves the food, and rings up the customers by herself. “I’m tired at the end of the day, but as long as my customers are happy, that’s all that matters.” Still, she is thinking about getting another person working for her sometime in the near future.
She has a regular clientele. But she wants to tell people who’ve never come to Workmen’s before, “Workmen’s is not very easy on the eyes, but once you get in and you take a bite…the atmosphere, it just makes you feel at home.”
Angie tells her customers, “I don’t want you to feel like you’re rushed. I don’t want you to feel like you’re not welcome, because everyone who hits that door, you’re welcome here.”’
Her mother told her that whenever a customer comes in the door, “feed them well”. And that’s what she does.
Workmen’s Café is located at 1837 Grimball Road. It is open from 11 am to 4 pm, Monday through Friday.
Angie Bellinger attended the Atlanta College of Art, now defunct, where she studied photography. She continued her studies at Indiana State where she received her master’s degree in photography. She still does photography, and some of her prints are for sale in the Café.
Sandra Stringer is our Editor. She is now seriously addicted to Workmen’s macaroni and cheese. Liz McCafferty is our Staff Photographer.