Just a couple miles north of the intersection of Sea Island and Frederica roads a giant red barn mindfully watches over hurried passersby, as it has for nearly the past 70 years. Unquestionably the oldest eatery on St. Simons Island under one family’s leadership, Bennie’s Red Barn, constructed beginning in 1952 by Bennie and Louise Gentile, before the couple opened the restaurant in 1954, has provided decades of mouth-watering food and a unique atmosphere.
If the walls of the building could talk, they would tell tales of marriage proposals, anniversary celebrations, rehearsal dinners and wakes. Stories about everyday people having dinner to commemorate a job promotion or academic acceptance would abound, and there would be whispers of what celebrity, politician or other well-known persona was spied there on any given evening. It’s the type of place where jeans are fine, but so is your Sunday best, or gala ensemble.
With its roaring fire in the cold-weather months, Bennie’s Red Barn is the perfect spot to enjoy hand-cut steaks and pork chops, spaghetti and lasagna made from the old Gentile family recipe and fried chicken that tastes exactly like Grandma used to make. Then there’s the seafood. Fresh, delicious and prepared in a variety of ways, the fish, shrimp, scallops and crab, hit the spot when you want something other than a steak. Don’t miss the side dishes – Bennie’s Red Barn is the place you want to go when you are craving real collard greens, homemade mac and cheese and other Southern specialties. The onion rings are special too.
The atmosphere, service and food are the reasons reservations are made many months in advance for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve dinner service. Generations of families show up in their holiday best and enjoy greeting one another and dining in the large, airy building.
Of course, this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it new challenges. The restaurant was closed for a few weeks, and reopened in stages. It is now fully operational, although tables have been removed, and social distancing is in effect. Anyone entering Bennie’s Red Barn will have his or her temperature taken, and signage on the doors requests those showing symptoms of the coronavirus not enter.
Owner Don Gentile is using technology to combat the virus. Recently installed air handlers use microwave technology to purify the air, and overlook the large dining room. Gentile says when air circulates through the new system, germs are killed. He also has invested in UV lights and installed them in the kitchen and food preparation areas – UV rays are also proven to kill germs like those that cause COVID-19. These measures, in addition to extra sanitation steps, the wearing of masks by bartenders, waitstaff and bussers, and regular disinfecting of the restaurant and food preparation areas have yielded positive results. Because of these steps, diners are able to relax and enjoy their time at Bennie’s Red Barn – a precious commodity these days.
Gentile isn’t yet finished. He plans on adding more UV lights in the dining room protective measures to improve the overall air quality inside the landmark restaurant. The UV lights won’t interfere with diners – they only operate when the building is empty.
“We want people to come out and enjoy a meal,” he said. “We love having them here.”
Bennie’s Red Barn, at 5514 Frederica Road, on St. Simons Island, beginning at 5 p.m. seven days a week. The phone number is: 912-638-2844. Dress is casual, and reservations are happily accepted, but not always necessary.