01/14/18 — More than just an eatery

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More than just an eatery

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on January 14, 2018 6:11 PM

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Rita's Place has quickly become a regular spot for many residents, both as a place to eat and a place to visit with friends.

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Betty Jo King, left, and Annie Nixon gather for lunch almost daily at Rita's Place in Mount Olive. Nixon laughed as she said "If she doesn't open, I get upset."

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Rita Long visits with some of the members of "the round table" during their lunch. Pictured from left are Roy Beavers, Randy McCullen, Rex Hatch and Robert Beasley.

It's where a group of men gather several times a week to solve the world's problems.

It's where people gather to visit with friends.

And it's where everyone gathers for a homecooked country meal.

It's Rita's Place in Mount Olive.

The down-home restaurant has become a substitute of sorts for the former Southern Belle, which closed in 2013.

"After Southern Belle closed, we didn't have a place like this to come," said owner Rita Long. "Ms. Gaynelle, owner of the Southern Belle kept telling me she was going to close and when she did, that I needed to come and open a restaurant. I told her I would when she retired."

When Ms. Gaynelle retired, the owner of the building that houses Rita's Place, approached Long about putting a restaurant in his building.

Long and her husband had operated the Village Restaurant in Dudley for 12 years before closing and going into other occupations. So they had plenty of experience in the restaurant business.

"I thought about it a long time, and thought somebody's going to put a restaurant here, so it might just as well be me," Long said. "I just prayed and prayed that God let me make it here because everything I had was on the line with this business

"I just about went to the nuthouse wondering if I was going to have any business. I was scared people wouldn't come."

Those worries disappeared the very first day Long opened the doors to Rita's Place.

"That first day we opened, we had too many people, more than we could feed," Long said. "We were unprepared for how many people showed up. And they just keep on showing up."

Patrons like the homemade country dishes that are served at Rita's Place.

"Everything is homemade," Long said. "We make our own potato salad, chicken salad, slaw, chicken pastry, hamburger steak, barbecued pork chops, gravy. Friday nights, I make a big fish stew and that's a big hit. We make homemade desserts like banana pudding, peach cobbler and lemon cake."

One of the eatery's signature dishes is its famous barbecued beef.

"Our sauce is different," Long said. "I can't tell you what's in it; I'd have to kill your for that. We slow cook the beef in our oven."

The recipes for the food are not written down anywhere; they come from Long's memory. She learned to cook exactly like her mother, the now 94-year-old Virginia Sullivan, and her aunts, Maxine Lipscomb and Marie Brown.

Long has gotten to know most of her patrons in the three years Rita's Place has been open. She said they don't just sit down, eat and leave right away.

"They stay and visit," she said. "In the summer time, they love to go sit on the porch. There's always a cool breeze blowing on that porch, no matter how hot it is. Sometimes I go home at 4:30 p.m. and they're still sitting there."

One table that's the hangout for several older men is referred to as the round table.

"They are here all the time," Long said. "They sit around and solve the world's problems."

One of those men is 85-year-old Robert Beasley, who has been going to Rita's Place since it opened.

"It's not just for the food," he said. "We guys are early risers. All of us gather here at 6 a.m. We solve world problems and all those little things.

"We are just all good friends. Some are Democrats, some are republicans, and we don't know what the rest of them are, but we love one another."

The men gather for good food and good fellowship seven days a week.

"We just have so much fun," Beasley said. "I don't have anybody at home and this gives me somewhere to go."

Beasley also helps Long with things like repairing table and chair legs and even runs errands for her, which earned him a baseball cap with "Rita's Place 'gopher'" written on it.

Annie Nixon has also been going to the restaurant since it opened after someone told her how good the food was.

"When I came the first time, they fed me and I got stuck on it, like somebody on crack cocaine, the food was just that good," the 75-year-old said.

"One of the things that makes me come here is that it's more like a family atmosphere. Everybody communicates with everybody. Everybody is somebody. Nobody looks over nobody."

Nixon said it's a family atmosphere, and that's why she eats there every day.

"I feel like we're having a family reunion when I come," she said.

Long said sometimes people may have to wait for their food.

"But my theory is sometimes good food's worth waiting for a little bit," she said. "We deal with good food; we don't deal in fast food.

"We want them to feel like they're at home when the come here. When you walk in, I want you to feel like you're in your mama's kitchen or your own kitchen."