It’s probably been about five years since I’ve walked into Hildebrandt’s, a grocery and deli at the corner of Sixth and Ellis in downtown Augusta.
But owner Luanne Hildebrandt looked up with a smile, same as always, and greeted me with, “Hello, Danielle.”
That’s the first thing you should know about Hildebrandt’s – Luanne never forgets a face.
The second thing you should know is that Hildebrandt’s is downtown’s oldest continually operated business. Established in 1879 as a grocery store by Luanne’s grandfather’s uncle, Nicholas Hildebrandt, the establishment added the kitchen and deli counter when Luanne’s father, Louis, ran it after World War II.
Today, you can imagine that Hildebrandt’s looks much the same as it did back then. The red-brick exterior still features a faded black-and-white mural of the store’s sign, while the dusty glass display in front showcases Hildebrandt’s famous bicycle and several of their signature T-shirts.
Inside, it’s dimly lit, with gently creaking hardwood floors and tall wooden shelves stocking groceries that range from pharmacy needs to canned meats and vegetables. Over the past year, the store has cut down its grocery business and added four extra tables in the front. But the back of the store is where the action is, and where most customers prefer to sit.
There, cheerful yellow walls are covered with photos of a bygone era, ancestors in dark dresses and lace, grinning boys on bicycles, and even Luanne singing in a choir as a child. Marble-topped tables and stools are available where customers can sit family-style. And behind the deli counter is Luanne and her assistant Chris, still slicing meats and serving homestyle sandwiches made to order.
Hildebrandt’s is also one of the only places I know that serves a porkchop sandwich, something I typically only make at home. I was glad to see it still on the menu, and placed my order. Sean chose the special, four meats and two cheeses, and asked Luanne to put whatever she wanted on it.
For my side, I opted for the German potato salad, while Sean began wandering the chip aisle to make his choice – Cape Cod original chips. He also grabbed a Mountain Dew from the refrigerated case.
“How about an Arnold Palmer?” asked Chris. I love the combination of sweet tea and lemonade (also available unsweetened, said Chris), and my first sip reminded me of the heavy-on-the-lemon tea that my Aunt Margaret used to make for dinners at her house – tart and not too sweet.
We took the one table for two right next to the counter, and as the lunch crowd trickled in, I imagined going back to that idealized, Andy Griffith-esque time when folks would meet at a lunch counter like Hildebrandt’s, grab a soda and some chips, and leisurely chat and while away the time. For someone used to the order-and-go mentality established by franchise sandwich shops, it takes a moment to get used to it. (But, it’s worthwhile to note: if you’re in a hurry, you can call your order in ahead of time, even if you’re dining in.)
So Sean and I settled back, chatted, snacked on his chips, and perused some of the local papers while waiting on our orders. Meanwhile, I knew that progress was being made.
“You want that potato salad hot or cold, Danielle?” (Sean recommended it cold.) “Do you want that bread toasted?” (“Yes!”) “One porkchop or two?” (My mind boggled a bit at this – but I went with one.) And when the baskets came sliding onto our table, I knew it was a freshly made, just-as-I-wanted-it sandwich. After all, I’d seen Luanne picking up the raw porkchop to slide it into the waiting pan.
As I took my sandwich in my hands, I couldn’t help but smile. The aroma of freshly fried pork just says home to me. And that first bite, with the warm pork, cold mayo and sweet tomato, with the squishy, yet crisp, bread, was just terrific.
The potato salad had the proper vinegar tang and strips of bacon, but I thought that next time, I’d try it hot.
Sean’s sandwich came piled high with salami, turkey, ham and roast beef, with cheddar and muenster, lettuce, tomato and mayo, on his choice of wheat bread. It wasn’t anything special, but the fact is, it’s hard to find a good sandwich like that at a restaurant.
Luanne was right on with her selection of meats, and everything was just simple, fresh and tasty – exactly how you’d make it at home, without the trip to the grocery store.
When we finished, Sean dumped our baskets and drinks in the trash can, and Luanne came over to tally our bill.
On a plain slip of paper, she wrote in a scrawl: 60 cents for Sean’s two canned sodas; $1.50 for my Arnold Palmer; and about a dollar for each of our sides. My sandwich was only $2.50, and Sean’s mile-high special was $5.25.
We paid at the cash register at the front, and as we walked out, I couldn’t help but smile. Maybe I hadn’t been to Hildebrandt’s for years, but it was nice to know that some things always stay the same.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Hildebrandt’s, 226 6th St.
HOURS: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
SECOND HELPING: (706) 722-7756 or find them on Facebook