LATTA, S.C. – If Interstate 95 is our Main Street then four-diamond dining is closer than you may think. Exit 1A to be exact. No map necessary – the first stop over the South Carolina state line dumps travelers smack in the middle of South of the Border, which means it’s possible to pass Pedro’s Diner and his Ice Cream Fiesta on the way to a six-course gourmet meal at a restaurant rated by AAA and Select Registry. Both give Abingdon Manor high marks, four out of five diamonds 12 years running and billing as one of only eight Select Registry properties in South Carolina. Michael and Patty Griffey opened their inn to overnight guests in 1995, but the restaurant happened almost by accident. Road-weary visitors were reluctant to drive into the nearby town of Dillon for meals, and Latta, a small village, had few late-night options. The Griffeys were already offering breakfast – why not dinner? From there, the restaurant blossomed. It grew so popular the couple recruited Chef Jeff Grubb to help Patty in the kitchen, introduced special monthly wine dinners and eventually added weekend cooking schools, which is where friends Pam Basehore and Jody Lughes of Raleigh could be found on a recent Saturday afternoon. The weekend was a Christmas gift from their respective spouses who lounged while Pam and Jody cooked. Gloomy skies threatened rain outside, but inside, the kitchen was filled with the smells of fresh bread and mushrooms sautéed in butter. The wine flowed freely as students gathered around a large wooden island, aprons tied behind their backs. Abingdon Manor is a massive 10,000-square foot Greek Revival that dwarfs the other homes in the neighborhood, but its kitchen is cozy with exposed brick walls and a large window with a view of the grounds. Abby, the Griffeys’ adorable dog, watched the action from the doorway, hoping for a handout. The cooking school has charm but serious lessons, too. On this Saturday afternoon, Patty had an ambitious culinary itinerary: sorbet followed by roasted red pepper soup, Caesar salad, poached pears in cream, a tomato and basil tart, lobster thermidor and focaccia to be used for the following morning’s breakfast. Basehore and Lughes were among a group of cooking novices plus a student with cordon bleu training and husband-and-wife regulars on their way back home to Boston. The weekend had a simple and delicious routine – when they weren’t cooking, they were eating, starting with dinner Friday night followed by breakfast Saturday morning and a full day of cooking. That night, students would eat the fruits of their labor and finish up with breakfast Sunday morning. But on Saturday afternoon, it was all about the cooking. Patty has the ability to make the most complicated recipe seem simple. An ice cream scoop is the trick to coring poached pears. Lobster tails are made easy with a pair of common kitchen shears. And taste tests are welcome. Students dipped spoons into amaretto cream just whipped up for the night’s dessert. “Oh that is good,” Basehore said with a groan. “Everything is so luscious. It’s just been unbelievable.” Cooks go home with the confidence to try recipes at home and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a four-diamond restaurant. (Try them for yourself using the recipes starting on Page 32.) But for those who can’t afford a weekend cooking school or even a weekend stay, the dining room is open to the public seven nights a week. Start off with a cocktail in one of the intimate parlors or pocket gardens before a 7:30 p.m. seating for course after course of mouthwatering selections: homemade pastas, canapés or tarts for starters, fresh soups and salads and entrees like herb-crusted rack of lamb, grilled beef tenderloin with mango salsa, veal scallopini, grilled shrimp, crab cakes or scallops in an orange and Tequila cream sauce. And that’s barely scratching the surface. The Griffeys even offer gourmet to go – brown-bag lunches that may be picked up and taken on the road. An epicurean I-95, who knew?