By Christian Kowalski, 2016
Willy’s Diner is a small, family-style BBQ restaurant in Franklin, North Carolina. Located a few minutes outside Franklin’s downtown area, Willy’s is home to a variety of Southern style cuisine. Our concierge at the hotel recommended the restaurant, commenting that their fried catfish “melts in your mouth” and that the ribs have “meat that just smoothly falls off the bone.” With these glowing reviews in mind, we made our way toward Franklin’s most popular BBQ joint.
Upon entering the restaurant, which is situated upon a hill overlooking the town landscape, one is welcomed to a traditional scene for many Southern, family style restaurants. Glossed over wood covers the building end to end with a variety of pictures and signs covering the walls that seem fitting on shows like American Pickers. Once finished, customers pay up front where they can view the strung-up t-shirts and merchandise with the Willy’s logo. Our party of four had a waiting time of about ten minutes, and at first glance, the restaurant seemed to be a popular family dinner spot. We were eventually seated in at corner wooden table with an assortment of sauces to choose from.
The menu was organized in much the same way as traditional BBQ joints: you had your platters and the bevy of sides to choose from. Some of these were classic side staples like fried okra, coleslaw, and baked beans. Others were refreshing spins on traditional sides like squash bites, which were a blend of fried cornmeal and squash that had a moist texture most cornmeal based dishes lack.
The platters were also classic features of southern style cooking: catfish, barbeque and ribs were the centerpieces of their menu. I ordered a fried catfish platter with sides of potato salad, coleslaw and fried okra. I was forewarned by our waitress of the magnitude of this platter that many people don’t finish it do to the sheer amount of fried catfish they serve on the plate. Not phased by such gestures, I reaffirmed my position to order the catfish that “melts in your mouth.”
There weren’t any exaggerations on our waitress’s part; the platters were tall orders stacked with meat. Served on trays, the dishes were all of ample size, allowing the opportunity to mix and match with sauces and sides to my heart’s desire. And our concierge’s glowing review of the catfish wasn’t an exaggeration either; the catfish at Willy’s was the best dish I tasted on the Highway 64 trip. The pieces broke off easily and quite literally felt like they were melting in my mouth. There was no overpowering fishy taste nor an overwhelming fried feeling. It was succulent fish that was also mild enough to be completed by any of the sauces provided. My favorite was their BBQ sauce that had a perfect blend of tangy and sweet that brought out much flavor with the dish. The sides all were excellent; the coleslaw, potato salad and fried okra all exceeded expectations. The coleslaw especially complemented the catfish very well. But the side that stood out were the squash bites, which provided a unique perspective on cornmeal that benefited from the squash flavor.