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Wilson’s Soul Food anchored the west side of downtown and the Hot Corner. Weaver D’s has been Automatic for the People since the days before Automatic for People. Then there was Peaches Fine Foods down West Broad Street, serving up the best fried chicken and mac ’n cheese — at least, for my money — in town. There were even two Plantation Buffets!

Fast forward a decade, and Wilson’s is a bar, Peaches is a parking lot and Plantation Buffet has contracted back to its NorthFarm location. Dexter Weaver has threatened to close no fewer than three times, but Weaver D’s continues to chug along.

And as COVID-19 descended upon Northeast Georgia, it looked like it may claim the most venerable — and best, if you know what good is — buffet in town.

For months, the open sign at Food for the Soul didn’t illuminate. For months, I didn’t know what to do for lunch on Thursdays.

Pork Chop Thursday at Food for the Soul should be the only lunch option I need. But with each passing week, I grew more and more concerned that Athens had lost another institution — related, we’re going to have to talk about Gyro Wrap down the road, but that loss is still too raw now.

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I mean, it’s not like there weren’t good reasons. A lot of what makes Food for the Soul so special also makes it a rough candidate to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a small space with low ceilings, just a few family tables and not a lot of air circulation. If you’ve eaten there, your clothes know this to be accurate.

Then there is the very nature of the buffet itself — one long hot tray with three rows, a dozen vegetables, four meats and a cornbread station — with serving spoons and tongs for each item. The checkout counter was just someone sitting in a restaurant chair holding the credit card machine. 

In other words, it is perfect. It’s been my favorite place to take folks looking for some home cooking. Jim Thompson and I would make the pilgrimage over from the Athens Banner-Herald at least once a month. When I became a first-time homeowner this past January, my realtor David Hadden and I signed the offer over fried fish and greens.

It was David who texted me last Thursday morning with the news: Food for the Soul was open. Pork Chop Thursday was on!

I still had some concerns when I pulled into the empty parking lot at 11:55 a.m. I donned my mask and walked through the front door, not quite sure what to expect.

As it turned out, there was nothing to worry about.

The long, hot tray with 3 rows filled with the best soul food Athens has to offer is all there for the taking. It was just behind a tall, wide sheet of plexiglass. Employees will scoop the food for you — you get to choose how many meats and veggies you want, and a slice of cake is now $1 — and send you on your way.

By the time I walked out 5 minutes later with a fried pork chop, slice of meatloaf, broccoli casserole, macaroni and cheese, green beans, cornbread and a slice of chocolate cake, there was a line waiting out the door to get theirs. 

It was all such a familiar moment at a familiar place, which are hard to come by these days. We probably won’t get any college football games around here this fall, and none of us are going to The Masters. I haven’t been to a happy hour in the flesh since early March. Did I mention Gyro Wrap — for my money, the most Athens restaurant of them all — is gone?

The situation can all feel rather hopeless, but there is hope to be had if you’re looking for it. I found a little bit of that in a pork chop on Thursday. 

Go get yours, and remind yourself how adaptable and enduring we can be.

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Joe VanHoose is a writer and promoter based in Athens, Georgia. He is a Florida man who recognizes that Florida is too hot to inhabit, but rumor has it that he was a Gator Football booster for nearly 20 years. Joe has more enthusiasm than talent for playing music, but he can put you on a good band or barbecue restaurant just the same. On the weekends, you can find him in a haze of red clay at one of the dirt tracks of Northeast Georgia. He is not ashamed of the gospel of short track racing.