Tucked away in the thick forests below the Green River is the small town of Saluda. The row of downtown businesses takes a few minutes to stroll by. Railroad tracks are the only physical barrier between the commercial corridor and neighborhoods dotting the nearby hillside.
And at the center of the quaint, cozy downtown is the Purple Onion.
“When we started [this business] 19 years ago, we were hoping to create a gathering place for people to come together and enjoy good conversation, good food, and live music,” said Susan Casey, owner of the beloved Polk County restaurant. “And it really is better than I ever dreamed it could be, in a lot of ways. It’s such a pleasure to be in there and see people enjoy themselves.”
Casey and her husband, sculptor Stoney Lamar, moved to Saluda in 1980. The town hasn’t changed much in since then, both in terms of population and the sincere attitude where a sense of adventure intersects with a sense of community.
“It felt like home the first time I came here,” Casey said. “It’s small, it has always felt safe, there’s a strong sense of community, it’s beautiful. And it has some natural boundaries—Saluda Grade, Green River Gorge, and the Greenville Watershed—which protect it and provide a lot of natural beauty.”
After running her own catering business for several years, Casey opened the Purple Onion in 1998. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the location offers a Mediterranean-themed menu with a regional flare from locally-sourced produce and meats.
“We must have come up with the right equation, because so many restaurants don’t make it this long. Probably a lot of it is perseverance, especially in the early days,” Casey laughed. “[Twenty years] is a milestone as a restaurant and as a music venue.”
Hosting live music several nights a week year round, the Purple Onion has also become a haven for talented local acts and nationally known groups. All are in search of a place they’ll be treated well and genuinely listened to by the attentive audiences that are continually captivated by the caliber of groups rolling through their town.
“We were hoping to create a gathering place for people to come together, enjoy good conversation, good food, and live music.” —Susan Casey, The Purple Onion
“The live music has definitely kept it more interesting. Every year, we make upgrades to our sound system and now the permanent stage. The musicians and customers appreciate that, and it enables us to attract musicians that may not play a small venue,” Casey said. “And I stress to my management staff all the time how important [lifelong relationships with the musicians and customers] are. It makes for a much more pleasant life.”
As the Purple Onion enters its third decade of operation, Casey couldn’t be prouder of what the business stands for: “good conversation, good food, and live music.” It’s a testament to her vision and the community as a whole, which has supported the restaurant since day one.
“It’s a great deal of satisfaction,” Casey said. “It makes me happy to work hard to create something like this, and when it works, it’s very satisfying. It makes the hard work worth it to be in the midst of that. We feel really lucky to be part of this community.”