Leon’s World—A Place With a No-Whining Policy
Story and Photos by Sascha Stokes
It smells of waxy tablecloths and coffee laced with Amaretto, as I stumble over the freshly painted porch into Don Leon’s cafe. The radio in the corner is rattling through yet another verse of the well worn local anthem; “From Carolina down to Georgia, smell the Jasmine and Magnolia. Sleepy sweet home, Alabama, roll tide roll…” and so forth. “Coffee?” Don Leon announces from his creaky bench in the corner. “Yes, please!” “It’s free for everyone with a smile, so you get two”!
Don Leon is as sparkling as the mountainous countryside around his cafe’s porch in the little town of Highland, just across the border from Georgia to North Carolina, off Highway 441. I arrived here completely by accident, armed with a tatty car, a map of the deep South, an out of date hotel guide and a cell phone without reception.
It takes Leon no more than about 20 minutes to serve me my much needed coffee plus every bit of interesting information about himself. It only occurred to me much later that Leon’s wife Susan joined us not only to share her morning coffee, but quite possibly to keep the precocious story telling talent of her husband under close scrutiny.
Stories flow as freely as coffee here. Leon swapped international jewelry design for serving the best corn muffins in town in a cafe full of practical charm. And yes, some places really get away with pinning every faded postcard they have ever received to the walls. The added selection of framed newspaper clippings and personal photos give an honest and down to earth authenticity to the situation. As far as I am concerned, there is something seriously sexy about practicality that works. You get your drink in practical mugs here, sit on practical wooden benches and spill things over practical gingham-wax tablecloths. Every table also presents you with the essential rules and regulation. They sum up DonLeon’s place in a few pithy sentences:
‘Warning! DonLeon’s Deli is NOT politically correct. If you are easily offended, then there is a very high possibility that you might be offended here.’
‘No whining policy! We are sorry of you are offended by the obnoxious strippers at the table next to you, the music or the chef yelling in the kitchen, but if you need to control you environment, then stay at home.’
‘Peak hour seating! If you see an empty table, jump on it. This is the only way you will get a seat. We know all your little tricks too, so don’t try them….’
‘Tip or die! Tipping will be appreciated. It helps us take a nice vacation in the winter.’ and other subtle references to the character of the owner….
Leon reveals some more secrets. Apparently, he was once cast against his will into the role of an obnoxious and eccentric Russian ballet teacher. His wife doesn’t fail to point out that the role fitted him down to the last line and that it launched her husband into the local limelight.
While Leon treats me to the second complementary and utterly irresistible corn muffin, he supplements this with yet another bit of gossip. “Highland is not what it seems”, he theorizes with a theatrical expression and adds a pregnant pause. “Most of the farmers in their pick-up trucks you see venturing into here are actually lawyers and other wizz-kid professionals that have escaped to Highland for a second life, for a clean and fresh start so to speak.”
“Lunch”? Leon suggests.
I might just as well, now at 11am, after breakfast at 9am and two coffees and corn muffins in between. Now, there is lunch and there is Leon’s lunch. Although the menu is bursting with fresh, utterly delicious sounding gum amusements, the chef is open to suggestions and, yes, I can design my own salad and sandwich: Home made bread, the freshest of fresh vegetables, juicy, crispy salad leaves, not a single preservative in sight and an entirely home made sauce, the recipe of which I couldn’t for my life extract from the chef.
My tip is: Never let yourself be fooled by the slogan on the coffee mug that lures you into an establishment. Mine said: ‘Danger, Men Cooking!’ I stroll out four hours after first stumbling past that rattling radio and after tipping generously for that winter vacation.
How to get to Highlands: Highway 64, NC Atlanta, ca.121 miles Airports certified for carrier operations nearest to Highlands:
· ANDERSON RGNL (about 53 miles; ANDERSON, SC; ID: AND)
· ASHEVILLE REGIONAL (about 54 miles; ASHEVILLE, NC; ID: AVL)
· DONALDSON CENTER (about 62 miles; GREENVILLE, SC; ID: GYH)
Best time to travel: All year round, although snow might affect the journey in the winter months DonLeon’s Cafe: P.O Box 713, 30 Dillard Road Highlands, NC 28741 828-526-1600 Opens: Tues-Sun 11:00am – 6:00pm Vegetarian meals available
Places to stay: Refer to http://www.bbonline.com/nc/highlands.html for a comprehensive selection of inns and B&Bs in and around Highland.