As a young child growing up in Augusta, there was nothing that made Laura Duke happier than going to eat pancakes at her grandfather’s popular local restaurant on Walton Way: Duke Restaurant.
Of course, no one actually called it Duke Restaurant, she joked.
Locals who were drawn to the popular family-owned business on Walton Way for more than 40 years knew it only as “Duke’s.”
For many longtime customers, it was like a nickname for an old friend, she said.
“Everybody referred to it as Duke’s,” said Laura Duke, now 34. “To be honest, I don’t know how old I was when I finally realized it was Duke Restaurant and not Duke’s. It was just a really special place where everyone felt at home.”
She’ll never forget walking through the big metal doors of her grandfather’s restaurant and sitting at the horseshoe-shaped counter surrounded by staff and customers who were like her extended family.
“Since it was only open from 5:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., my brother, sister and I were usually in school when the restaurant was open. But we would always go there after doctor’s appointments or something like that. So it was a special treat for us,” Laura Duke recalled. “They would make us pancakes with smiley faces on them. I loved it because they didn’t do that for everybody, but they did it for us.”
To this day, even though her grandfather’s restaurant closed back in 2000, Laura Duke says she has people approach her all the time with stories about the restaurant.
“Anytime people hear my last name, they immediately ask, ‘Are you Duke of Duke Restaurant?’” Laura Duke said, laughing. “As soon as I say, ‘Yes,’ they’ll always say, ‘I wish someone would open it back up. We really miss it. We wish it was still here in Augusta.’ But, the truth is, it wouldn’t be the same without my grandpa behind the register. Nope. No way.”
James Duke, who was 82 years old when he passed away in 2009, was completely devoted to the restaurant, his customers and all of his employees, she said.
“My grandpa got up at the crack of dawn and was at the restaurant by 4:30 a.m.,” Laura Duke said. “He worked hard all day until they closed around 2:30 p.m., but he absolutely loved it. A lot of people dread going to work, but he absolutely loved going to work, and it showed. People came in and saw him every day. He had tons of regulars.”
And everybody who was anybody in politics would frequent Duke Restaurant for all the latest gossip around town.
“It was the political place to be. If you needed to know what was going on gossip or otherwise, Duke Restaurant was the place to go, for sure,” she said. “In fact, a lot of people campaigned there over the years including former President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Tom Allgood and Congressman Charlie Norwood.”
Whenever Laura Duke talks about her grandfather and his legacy in Augusta, she can’t help but beam with pride.
In fact, as a local artist, Laura Duke has decided to honor her family’s legacy by painting a series of pieces featuring different angles of Duke Restaurant. She plans to showcase her paintings in a local show sometime next year.
“There are just so many people who have fond memories of the restaurant,” she said. “I just remember being little and going through those big metal doors and the entire place having that diner-like feel. And the waitresses there, like Sylvia and Ann, everybody knew them because they had worked there forever and they took care of everyone.”
When her grandfather opened the restaurant in the 1950s, he knew exactly what it took to make the business a success, she said.
“The restaurant was open from 1956 to 2000,” Laura Duke said. “My grandfather, who was in Navy during World War II, moved from his hometown of Jefferson, Georgia, to Athens where he worked at The Varsity. He was a cook there. He was also a cook in the Navy. But in the 1950s, he heard that the Savannah River Site was being built here. So he took a bus to Augusta and he thought, ‘Well, if I can’t get a job at a restaurant in Augusta, I’ll just get a job at SRS.’”
James Duke didn’t have to look very far to find himself a job in Augusta, Laura Duke joked.
“He got a job at the Trailways restaurant. That was literally the bus station’s restaurant,” she said, laughing. “After working there, he went to a place called Bill and Harry’s on 100th block of Broad Street. And then he eventually went to The Hot Shoppe on Central Avenue.”
After working at The Hot Shoppe for a little while, James Duke realized the restaurant was struggling, so he, along with a friend named Buddy Chambers, decided to buy the business. In fact, Laura Duke said her father, Buddy Duke, was named after Buddy Chambers because he was such a good friend to her grandfather.
“But not long after they bought it, they got sued because The Hot Shoppe name was also a national chain,” Laura Duke explained. “So they had to change the name and, at that point, Buddy Chambers got out of the business and my grandfather bought his share and called it Duke Restaurant.”
DUKE’S DOORS CLOSE
For more than 40 years, Duke Restaurant thrived on Walton Way and became
an Augusta landmark with its slogan, “Just Good Food.”
But then, in February 2000, Laura Duke remembers being a sophomore in high school and hearing a rumor about the restaurant.
By that time, her grandfather had retired and her uncle, David Duke, had taken over the restaurant.
“Someone at school came up to me and said, ‘I can’t believe Duke’s is closing.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not,’” Laura Duke said. “So I called my mom from school and she came and picked me up and we went straight to the restaurant and we saw everybody standing in line waiting to eat there one last time. The line was out the door.”
Laura Duke said she couldn’t believe the restaurant was really closing.
“I remember, we cut in line and walked in and all the waitresses were crying,” Laura Duke said. “It was so sad. So terribly sad.”
As she watched all of Duke’s employees trying to console each other, Laura Duke said she remembers feeling angry at some of the members of the local media who were there trying to find out why the restaurant was closing.
“I remember getting really defensive, trying to protect all the waitresses because there were all these reporters in their faces,” Laura Duke said. “Here were these women who had worked for my grandfather for years and they were really upset, but they were still trying to do their job and serve people. I remember saying, ‘Leave her alone! Leave Sylvia alone! Leave Ann alone!’”
The Metro Spirit was also there the day Duke’s doors closed in February 2000.
And, yes, two reporters spoke to Sylvia Beasley and Ann Hilton, the veteran waitresses that Laura Duke was fiercely trying to protect as a teenager.
“I’ve been here all my life. It’s still hard to believe. It’s like family. Mr. (James) Duke was more of a daddy to me,” Hilton told the Metro Spirit in 2000, as she fought back tears. “He was always there for me.”
Hilton said she was 18 years old when she had started waitressing for James Duke.
“This restaurant was Mr. Duke’s baby,” Hilton said, adding that she was going to miss many of her regular customers. “A lot of the customers gave us phone numbers to keep in touch with them or they asked for our number. They just don’t understand because it was just all of a sudden.”
The Metro Spirit also talked to many of Duke’s loyal customers that day, such as Jimmy Anderson who decided to keep one of the restaurant’s sky-blue menus.
“I’m taking this home with me,” he told the Metro Spirit in 2000, adding that he used to come eat at Duke Restaurant with his father, and then passed on the tradition to his own son. “It’s real emotional for a lot of people, especially her.”
Just then, Anderson pointed to waitress Sylvia Beasley, who was working the lunch counter.
“How long have we been coming down here, Sylvia?” Anderson asked.
“Twenty years,” she told him as she wiped away her tears and quickly walked to the other side of the counter to help another customer.
Out of all those people paying the restaurant its dues that day, it was clear that no one was going to miss Duke Restaurant more than the people who worked there.
In 2000, the Metro Spirit also talked to David Jackson, who was known as the “do-everything man” at Duke Restaurant and had worked there since he was about 13 years old.
“My hard day’s work is over. I been saving since I was 13,” Jackson told the Metro Spirit in 2000, adding that he had worked at Duke Restaurant for more than 20 years. “You always save for a rainy day. So this afternoon when I leave here, it’s going to start raining.”
But Jackson had nothing but fond words for his then-employer, David Duke, whom he considered a brother.
Jackson pointed out that David Duke grew up in the restaurant, too. David Duke started as a dishwasher a week after graduating from high school in 1969. The two men had basically done everything together in the restaurant including mopping floors, toting trash, putting up stock and waiting tables.
“We grew up together,” Jackson said. “I met him when I was 5 years old. He was 8. I’ve been knowing him ever since. I love coming to work. We come to work together; we leave together.”
On that final day at Duke Restaurant in 2000, while customers were bringing in bouquets of flowers and armfuls of roses to the staff, Jackson said he had nothing but great memories working for the Duke family.
“I hate to leave everybody, because they are all my friends,” Jackson said in 2000. “When you work so long with people, yes, it’s a sad occasion when you leave. But I have no regrets. I would do it over again.”
HONORING DUKE’S MEMORY
Not long after the restaurant closed, Laura Duke and her family learned that her grandfather’s old business was being torn down on Walton Way.
“As soon as we heard they were tearing it down, we jumped in the car and went down there,” Laura Duke said. “I remember my dad and I went through and took pictures of everything and we grabbed some of the napkin holders. I mean, they left everything. They even had the pepper sauce and the menus still in the restaurant when they were tearing it down. So I grabbed all kinds of stuff.”
To this day, Laura Duke said she still has several old matchboxes, menus and hats from the restaurant.
She loves to show her own 9-year-old daughter, Aubrey, some of the memorabilia from Duke Restaurant.
“She thinks it’s the coolest. She says, ‘We are famous. We are Augusta famous,’” Laura Duke said, laughing. “After all, she’s usually with me when people ask about the restaurant or my grandfather, so she’s proud.”
Laura Duke said it’s very important for her daughter to know about her great grandfather, James Duke, even if the two only met for a very short time.
“Unfortunately, she didn’t really know my grandfather,” Laura Duke said. “She met him when she was just a baby. She was born in April of 2009, and he died in July of 2009. But she is still very proud of him and the restaurant he built.”
When Augustans watched Duke Restaurant close and eventually be torn down, it was a like a huge chunk of Augusta’s history was also destroyed.
Even today, 18 years later, the site of the former Duke Restaurant at 1920 Walton Way remains vacant.
“It’s definitely missed for sure. There is no doubt about that,” Laura Duke said. “Fortunately, some of the items in the restaurant were also given to the Augusta Museum of History. They have a Duke’s sign and a little booth. They have the smaller sign. I don’t know what happened to the huge sign out front. I guess they knocked it down.”
But there are items that Laura Duke still has from the restaurant that are extremely close to heart.
“I don’t know if people will remember, but the cornbread at Duke’s was shaped like a long rectangle,” Laura Duke said, smiling. “Well, I have the iron skillet to make those. So I’m really excited that winter is coming so I can make cornbread because it was crispy on both sides.”
A warm slice of cornbread was always one of her grandfather’s favorite meals, she said.
“The funny thing was that Papa Duke really wasn’t a big food person,” Laura Duke said, laughing. “Believe it or not, he didn’t really enjoy eating. He ate because he needed food to stay alive. Unlike me, I love food. But I remember that he would eat buttermilk with cornbread, chopped up. It sounds weird, but he loved it.”
In her heart, Laura Duke said she knows there could never be another Duke Restaurant in Augusta without her grandfather.
“When people talk about reopening, even my brother, who lives in Arkansas, kept telling me, ‘Do it! Just do it!’” Laura Duke said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Have you lost your mind? First of all, I am not getting up at 3 a.m. You know I’m not a morning person!’ Also, that’s hard work. My grandpa had everything down to a science. He was very careful, and he wasted nothing. He knew what it took to run a successful business, and he loved every second in that restaurant.”
When James Duke died in 2009, hundreds of former patrons of the restaurant came to the funeral along with many of his former employees.
It was touching to see how many people dearly loved her grandfather and wanted to say goodbye to him, Laura Duke said.
“I remember seeing Sylvia and Ann, my favorite waitresses, at the funeral,” she said, smiling. “And generations and generations of the same family who worked in the kitchen at Duke’s forever were all there. People really loved my grandfather. He was one of a kind.”
For more information about Laura Duke’s artwork and her upcoming show featuring some of her paintings of Duke Restaurant, visit lauradukefineart.com.