Carolina Characters

Donzelle’s Restaurant has been feeding folks in Conway and beyond since 1962

Russell Dickerson regularly greets customers at the door at Donzelle's Restaurant in Conway.
Russell Dickerson regularly greets customers at the door at Donzelle's Restaurant in Conway. jlee@thesunnews

Larry and Russell Dickerson are adherents of soul food and Southern hospitality.

If you enter their family-owned eatery, Donzelle’s Restaurant, you will witness those realities for yourself.

The brothers are purveyors of a family tradition that dictates they cook with love, serve with smiles, and treat you like family.

Larry Dickerson, 64, is the duo’s soul food cook. He knows how to prepare down-home food that smells good, tastes good, and makes you feel good. Country-cooking grandmas would be pleased.

His pork backbones and rice is slightly sticky and totally delicious. His fried chicken is golden brown, crispy, juicy (even the breasts) and a top seller. The fact is he creates deliciousness using know-how, not recipes.

Southern to his soul, Larry started in the business as a boy who couldn’t see above the stove on which he now cooks. Founded in 1962 by his parents, Donzelle and Dick, Donzelle’s is where food for the soul enters the bodies of folks appreciative of his culinary prowess.

“The food here is great,” said Jimmy Carey, 52, who provides some of the fresh produce used at Donzelle’s. “It is wonderful. I’ve been coming here for about 30 years.”

Carey walked out of the door with a fried chicken sandwich served on white bread and wrapped in wax paper. It is one of his favorite things to eat at Donzelle’s. When he wants it, he stands just outside the kitchen door and shouts to Larry, “Whenever you get a chance, I would like one of those chicken sandwiches.”

Six days a week, Larry is here cooking. This kitchen is hot and not for the wimpy. His only daughter, Marley Dickerson Crotts, 31, works in the trenches with him.

While he seasons pots of black-eyed peas, collard greens, stewed tomatoes, and an array of other vegetables, she fills orders with ease, including reading her Uncle Russell’s otherworldly handwriting on tickets.

Space is tight too. A deep freezer takes up most of the back wall. The stove stays covered with large pots and pans that house the meat selections and vegetables of the day. Homemade onion rings, French fries, chicken, and other deep fryer delicacies ensure Larry, Marley, and other employees are nice and toasty all day.

Yet, this crew can take the heat from any kitchen. They were born to do this.

Larry and Russell started working here as kids, both had dishwashing duties. Larry was 10. Russell was 8. All plates, utensils, and the like were washed by hand, as it is still done today by Minnie Dorsey, an employee for about 25 years or more.

“I would rather be back here in the kitchen any day,” said Larry, as he tossed chicken into the fryer. “You don’t have anything to worry about, except getting the food out.”

As a kid, Russell saw the restaurant as a way to escape the sweat-intensive labor of tobacco farming.

“I made a $1 a day picking up tobacco leaves,” said Russell, 62, after waiting on customers at the counter. “I worked for free here, but I didn’t care, as long as I didn’t have to pick up any more tobacco leaves.”

While Russell washed dishes for eight straight summers, Larry did his share too and scrutinized Laura McQueen. She was a black woman who at Donzelle’s for 30 or so years.

“She came here the day we opened,” Larry said. “She is dead now. Gone. God bless her soul.”

Through sheer observation and rigid determination, Larry learned McQueen’s secrets and created some of his own for righteous soul food people scrape from plates without shame or regret. However, don’t even ask Larry what he uses to soak his chicken in or what seasonings he places into the flour before frying it. He won’t tell you because he didn’t fall off of the tobacco truck and bump his head when he was little. He’s got solid sense in his cranium, and the secrets are staying there. Only blood can cull the secrets from his skull.

What he will share is that he is grooming his daughter to take over the helm one day.

She is unabashedly a daddy’s girl and admires his command of the kitchen and talents for turning out yummy eats.

Donzelle’s is renowned for its lunch specials that cost $8.25, which includes tax and a choice of meat and three sides. Larry is responsible for all the cooking, while Russell does the baking and works the front of the restaurant.

Russell is the core of Donzelle’s hospitality, as he is the one who spearheads it by opening the restaurant doors for customers and greeting most of them by name and all of them with a smile.

“Back in the beginning, a lot of our customers were tobacco farmers,” Russell said. “We were opened seven days a week, from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m.”

His mom, 94, and his late dad, created the blueprint that he, Larry, and the rest follow to this day.

And their customers still thankful for the food and sense of family they always find in this corner of Conway.

“I come for breakfast and lunch,” said Debbie Bedell, 53, who lives across the street. Her sister, Wanda Alford, and niece, Lauren Long, are waitresses at Donzelle’s. “You see the same old men sitting at the counter for breakfast.

Russell knows what they are going to eat, and the waitresses know what they are going to drink. I love hanging out here. We are like a little family, and it’s like having your own personal chef.”

Contact Johanna D. Wilson at JohannasCarolinaChar or to suggest subjects for an upcoming column.

First in a series about the faces behind beloved eateries