In Praise of Greasy Spoons

Nearly every town has got a family-owned diner or eatery that’s been around for decades, serving decent (or better) food quickly and inexpensively. In an age of retro, these are the real deal.

Jeff Greenough

Dude’s Drive-In, opened in 1954, is a landmark in Christianburg.

There is a probably a very old neon sign out front. The parking lot is usually jammed—whether it is 1:00 in the morning or an early-afternoon brunch. Inside, the place is a tiny bit dingy and redolent of hot butter and bacon grease. The music is sometimes good but often very bad. A middle-aged, sallow-skinned waitress, hair in a bun, sidles up to your undersized booth (with the springy seat), and, cracking her gum, asks in a borderline grouchy voice: “Whaddayahave, hon?” Her world-weariness is strangely alluring. You order “the usual, Phyllis,” and know not to chat her up.

Amid a din of animated voices, you cast a glance over the regulars nursing hangovers at the counter and back toward the kitchen, where a motley group of fry cooks, sweat beads on their pudgy faces, move with robotic efficiency between sinks and refrigerators and grills—cracking eggs and turning sausage. There is the metallic sound of spatulas sliding on hot griddles… and sizzle. You are oddly pleased by the thought that Martha Stewart might be repulsed by this weekend tableau of scraggly humanity and excessive vinyl—and probably too by the food that you inexplicably crave once a week: the home fries and corned-beef hash, the BLTs and burgers, the chicken-fried steak and chili-cheese dogs, the onion rings and omelets, all cooked and dropped on your table before you’ve gotten through your first cup of coffee.

This is decidedly not farm-to-table food—just reading the menu can harden your arteries. And isn’t that precisely the appeal of ramshackle, family-owned greasy spoons? They aren’t retro but rather the real thing—quirky, offbeat institutions where you don’t get a dessert tray or a smiley face on your check.

Virginia has got a bunch of neighborhood joints and roadside eateries—holes in the wall where locals have gathered for years for a quick, inexpensive meal. You don’t care that the walls haven’t been painted in 20 years or that the grits can be spongy. These are simple places to relax with family and friends—a routine that’s a break from the routine. They represent community, and they endure, usually without change. Some even have those little bowls of old-looking mystery mints beside the cash register that you always notice just after paying your bill and before twirling that little plastic roller that dispenses a toothpick. Over the years, you’ve eaten everything on the menu at least twice—but for some reason you have never ever reached out and grabbed one of those mints. It can’t be explained, except to say that that instinct is another component of an American ritual—eating at the local diner. Soak up the Spartan décor and clamor of these places, soak up the gravy and the egg yolk, but stay away from the mints.

Here are a few of our state favorites:

2400 Diner, Fredericksburg

Riverside Lunch, Charlottesville

Doumar’s, Norfolk

Dip Dog Stand, Smyth County

Dude’s Drive-In, Christianburg

Bob & Edith’s, Arlington

The Cavalier, Lynchburg

Fred’s Restaurant, Franklin

Horseshoe Restaurant, South Hill

Texas Tavern, Roanoke

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