January 6, 1991

By Kristina Feliciano of The Sentinel Staff

BITHLO — Paris has its cafes. London has its pubs. New York has its delis.

But only Bithlo has Chris' Truck Stop Restaurant. And only Chris' Truck Stop has Jeanette Rolls.

The two are synonymous in this rural east Orange area with good food and good times. Residents flock to the tiny eatery several times a week - some even several times a day - to enjoy the home cooking and the family atmosphere.

And to visit with Rolls, better known to diners as ''Ma.'' Rolls has been proprietor of Chris' for nine years.

It's a job she takes to heart.

''I love this kind of work,'' she said.

''It's what I've wanted as far back as I can remember, to own a little restaurant.''

Outside, the building is dingy white. The truck stop's name - a leftover from a previous owner - is stenciled in large black letters on a wooden sign. Above the sign, a red arrow with round white bulbs points to the restaurant.

Inside, it is cramped. Beams of sunlight try their best to slip in through the folds of the powder blue curtains. The windows have bars on them. Pictures of game animals hang on the blue cinder block walls along with a framed mirror emblazoned with the logo of a country music radio station.

''It's not ever going to be a fancy restaurant,'' Rolls said.

But it is a restaurant where everyone is welcome.

''If your shoes are dirty, you don't have to worry about it,'' Rolls said. ''If your clothes are dirty, you don't have to apologize, 'cause we know you're working people. This place caters to working people.''

Short, stocky and covered with freckles, Rolls makes the rounds in the dining room. She greets customers with a clap on the shoulder. She laughs heartily, when customers poke fun, a laugh that comes from way down in her belly.

Folks know just where they stand with the 58-year-old Florida native. If Rolls likes you, she'll do anything you ask.

Frequent Chris' diner and longtime Bithlo resident Helen Jones explains.

''I could ask her for anything and I think she'll give it to me,'' she said.

''I could come in here and say, 'I need $100. You got it?' and, if she had it, she'd give it to me. I could say, 'Jeanette, can I borrow your car?' She'd hand me the keys.’'

If Rolls doesn't like you, however, you can count yourself among the less fortunate.

''She doesn't take any bull,'' Jones said.

Jones can remember one customer who got on Rolls' bad side.

''She literally threw him out,'' she said.

''He hit the door.''

Lillian Cline was also there.

''I was getting scared. I didn't know if I was going to have to go or not,'' Cline said, getting antsy at the thought of the confrontation.

''I wasn't scared,'' said Jones, dressed in a blue and white striped sweatshirt, blue jeans and stylish lace-up shoes.

Jones travels Bithlo's well-worn roads in a sleek, late-model white Ford Thunderbird. The front license plate bears her initials. Her car shares the restaurant's white gravel parking lot with all makes of pickups.

Settled into a beat-up wooden booth, one of only six in the place, Jones talks about the truck stop's appeal between drags on her cigarette.

In the next booth sits Cline, also with cigarette in hand. She's wearing shorts and a short-sleeve blouse. Her combination cigarette/lighter case rests on the black formica table top that is chipped and peeling at the corners.

There is a kind of kinship among the regulars at Chris', Cline says.

''Everybody knows everybody. It's like a big family. You don't feel bad coming in here by yourself,'' she said.

The regulars that make up this big family are a varied bunch.

There's a kaffeeklatsch of three middle-aged men. They meet every morning for breakfast, with one of them driving from Kissimmee to be there. From their table comes a symphony of silverware clattering on plates and deep voices overlapping each other in conversation punctuated by loud laughter that rings out in unison.

Pappy stops in to say hello and steal a piece of bacon from their table. He looks like Ernest Hemingway posing for a Gap ad, only Pappy is thinner than the famous writer.

Cliff Drinkwater pulls up with his Siberian husky, who waits in the back of the truck while Drinkwater has breakfast. With his tousled gray hair and drab beige clothes, Drinkwater's most prominent features are his chunky gold watch and rings. He speaks emphatically about issues like the new luxury tax.

And of course, there's Jones and Cline. Jones comes in every day, sometimes two or three times a day when she's bored.

Another customer walks in and waitress Lillian Barnett, who calls everyone ''dear,'' hurries over to take his order.

''I'll have a bacon and egg sandwich,'' said the diner with the madras shirt.

''Bacon and egg on toast?'' she asks.

''Yes, ma'am.''

''Mayonnaise, dear?''

Brenda Danenhower, Rolls' daughter-in-law, helps out at the restaurant part-time. At the moment she is taking a cigarette break, watching the action from behind the counter.

The family atmosphere makes work seem like fun, she says.

''I come here to play, I don't come here to work. That's about what it is,'' she said.

''There's a lot of joking, a lot of gossip.''

So pull up a plate of fried eggs, grits and homemade biscuits. And don't forget those sausage patties. The gossip and the good humor is on the house.