Carrying on a Legacy

Published 6:03 pm Friday, November 9, 2018

Caro-Mi Dining Room a fabled destination for generations

Sitting at the base of the mountains, in a serene wooded area, resting behind the gentle flowing waters of the North Pacolet River, lies an unassuming wooden cabin.

After crossing the covered bridge leading up to the structure and walking through the front screen door, you’ll find yourself inside a warmly lit dining room, decorated with old photos, knick-knacks dating back generations and vibrant pennants of college and professional sports teams hailing from the Carolinas and beyond.

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After a pleasant greeting from the host, you and your dining companions can take a seat at one of the many wooden tables, draped in a red-and-white checkmark cloth, that dot the inside. Within moments, your server for the evening will offer you another amicable welcome, handing you a single page menu while placing platters of creamy macaroni salad and crunchy slaw on the table.

The best phrase to describe a visit to the famed Caro-Mi Dining Room is “old-school.” From the homey décor to the menu of classic Southern staples, the entire experience at the Tryon restaurant is a throwback to a previous era of hospitality, charm and chow.

Whether they are there to enjoy a couple more slices of salty country ham, to try once again to discover what makes the slaw — which, at first glance, appears to be nothing more than an unassuming bowl of cabbage and vinegar — so addicting, or just to enjoy a relaxing night out at a familiar place with familiar faces, the legion of diners who have frequented the business for years wouldn’t have it any other way.

A 73-year legacy

Caro-Mi Lodge — a portmanteau of “Carolina” and “Miami,” the homes of founders Ronald and Myrtle Mehaffey — opened in the spring of 1944 at the crossing of Highway 25 and Greenville Street, outside Saluda. Consisting of seven guest rooms, three guest cabins and a dining room, the lodge was open just during the summer months, as Ronald and Myrtle worked for the Florida East Coast Railroad the rest of the year.

After the Tennessee Valley Authority condemned the area where the lodge was located in 1956, the Mehaffey family built a new home for Caro-Mi off Highway 176 outside Tryon. Renamed to Caro-Mi Dining Room, gone were the lodges and cabins, and returning were the classic Southern dishes based on Mrs. Mehaffey’s personal recipes, including the restaurant’s famous macaroni salad and coleslaw appetizers.

Several other families have owned Caro-Mi since the founders’ retirement in 1963. The business is currently under the ownership of the Stafford family, who purchased the restaurant in 1990.

According to Dane, who has taken over the day-to-day operations of the business from his parents, Charles and Annette, the family is more like careful stewards than anything else, preserving the same tastes and atmosphere that has drawn customers to the humble wooden cabin for more than six decades.

“We’re just the ones to keep the tradition going, to try keep everything the same as its always been, what so many longtime customers remember,” Dane says.

Fabled tastes

Dane is quite familiar with the Caro-Mi tradition himself, as he has frequented the restaurant since he was a young child. He has loved the establishment’s macaroni salad for as long as he can remember (the slaw was an acquired taste for him, he says), and he always ordered the “Ham What I Am” country ham.

The dishes that Dane and the many others who frequent Caro-Mi love remain beloved staples of the menu today, prepared by head chef David Morrow and his kitchen staff using the same Mehaffey recipes that diners have enjoyed for generations.

The most popular dinner item remains the country ham, which is still cured and smoked the old-fashioned way by the same supplier the restaurant has used for years. The ham is sliced on premises and given a nice brown coat on the skillet before being served to customers with a side of grits, topped with red-eye gravy.

Other longtime favorites are the fried chicken and the mountain rainbow trout, the latter of which is deboned tableside and served with a dollop of butter and almond slices. All dishes at Caro-Mi are served with sides of green beans, cooked apples and biscuits.

Over the years, the menu has expanded to include dishes such as fried scallops, breaded flounder and, the most recent addition, the grilled mahi-mahi.

While there are plenty of choices on the menu, for many visitors, the highlight of the Caro-Mi experience remains the coleslaw appetizer. In fact, some customers have spent years attempting to learn the secret combination of ingredients behind its addicting flavor.

“My dad always would tell people who ask for the recipe, ‘You can have it — but you have to buy the business,’” Dane says.

A local institution

While the mystery behind the Caro-Mi slaw may remain a mystery to all but a select few, Dane is more than willing to share what he feels are the secrets to Caro-Mi’s enduring success — good food and a great atmosphere.

This combination has created a base of loyal regulars who are as much a part of the Caro-Mi story as the food, location and staff. A glance at the sports pennants that line the walls of one of the dining rooms is perhaps the most visible demonstration of how Caro-Mi’s frequent customers have left their mark on the business, donating their favorite sport team’s colors to serve as a small reminder of their patronage of the Tryon restaurant.

“We get a lot of out-of-town business, too, especially from the upstate,” Dane says. “For a lot of people, it’s kind of a tradition. Several generations of customers have been coming here. It’s kind of like a destination, a treat to come up here.”

With such a well-established gem on their hands, Dane says he and the staff of Caro-Mi are committed to maintaining the level of quality and service regulars have come to enjoy from the restaurant, and to ensure that first-timers will themselves become enamored by the unique charm of the quaint restaurant.

“It’s a unique dining experience — and it’s definitely Southern,” Dane says. “We’ve made it so that anybody will enjoy it.” •

Ted Yoakum is the managing editor of Foothills Magazine and the Tryon Daily Bulletin. He can be reached at 269-588-1040 or