Billie and Louis Van Dyke, amongst other things, shared a love for Blue Willow china. The blue and white, which were their favorite colors, appealed to them but the story behind the china was much more romantic.
The legend goes like this: A Mandarin's daughter falls for her father's secretary, but because of their difference in their financial fortunes (the secretary was poor, the daughter's father was rich) the daughter was forbidden to marry him. Saddened, she chose to weep under the willow tree. The secretary would come to get her before she was to wed a rich man, and they fled to his island home. The rich man, angered and humiliated, goes to burn down their island home, but they had turned into doves and flew away.
That romanticism ultimately led the couple to the conception of The Blue Willow Inn, which prominently featured the china that serves what has been named one of the best southern dishes in the southeast.
The Blue Willow Inn first opened its doors in 1991, but Van Dyke and her late husband Louis, owned restaurants in Social Circle and Covington beforehand. But with the Willow, the Van Dykes found their footing.
Twenty years later, Billie Van Dyke is still working as hard as ever.
"I'm here everyday, seven days a week. And sometimes that gets old," she laughed. "But when I'm gone I miss my customers. They're such a big part of my life."
The restaurant's popularity, with its signature Blue Willow china and delectable Southern dishes, rose to prominence as it received numerous accolades from the likes of Southern Living Magazine Readers' Choice Awards, USA Today, Gourmet Magazine and the Food Network. And the crowds drawn by the 1996 Olympics didn't hurt either.
In addition, the restaurant has been visited by guest from all 50 states and 180 countries, according to the website.
As previously reported in the News, the Willow sank into bankruptcy when the financial crisis caved its plans for expansion, leaving the Van Dykes in severe debt.
A federal bankruptcy judge in Macon approved the sale in January, allowing the restaurant to remain in business by entering into a long-term lease with new property owner Donald Poss.
"The hardest part of all this was to let people know we haven't closed. Even with these problems, our doors were never closed," Van Dyke said. "We've been open the whole time."
Van Dyke's favorite dish? The baked chicken and dressing, served every Wednesday and Sunday, as "the dressing is just like the way I remembered it from my mom and grandmother's kitchen," along with the grits served on grilled salmon that are offered on Saturdays.
The Willow's Friday and Saturday nights are also growing in popularity. The restaurant offers all-you-eat prime rib and baby back ribs, and seafood, including boiled and fried shrimp, oysters and deviled crabs. All this and a full salad bar, plus macaroni and cheese and fried chicken are served daily.
"Even when it costs us $49 a box or $14 a box, we will have those high quality foods," she said, noting that the rising costs of gas and food prices has been one of the tougher issues she's had to deal with in the current economy.
The Willow offers Italian night on every second Tuesday of the month, where Chef Piero Gusberti from Michaelangelo's Restaurant in Conyers visits and serves his specialty dishes like stuffed mushrooms and lasagna.