- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

''Can I have a cheeseburger?" a customer asks meekly at Jane's Lunch on Main Street in Berryville, Va.
"No," screams Mitzie Stoneberger Myers, the owner, to the laughter of the rest at the counter. "This is like McDonald's. We don't serve lunch until 11 o'clock."
Then she rustles up a cheeseburger for the customer anyway.
It's like that in small-town restaurants, where owners and customers know one another so well that good-natured ragging is the norm. In fact, if you want to get to the heart of a small town while you're driving in the country playing leaf-peeper, look for the down-home restaurant.
Places like these, which usually sit somewhere near Main Street, can embody the charm and humor of the close-knit community as well as provide you with the latest gossip. Here you'll get a slice of town life as well as a slice of sweet-potato pie and it's all terribly entertaining.
Usually an outsider has to ask for a menu because the mostly regular customers know what to order. (The waitress usually knows what they want anyway.) The menus are dominated by sizzling meats and greasy french fries.
The banter in these diners can get pretty thick, as customers and employees verbally harass each another. The latest news, whether that someone in town has broken a leg or Congress is infested with anthrax, is always the hottest topic. These days, the joints have American flags.

Jane's Lunch is one such place. Getting to Berryville, a town of about 3,000 east of Winchester, entails a brisk ride over hilly terrain, with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background. Along the way, one sees apple trees, stone fences and, of course, the metal sign recalling the Battle of Berryville.
All the signs of a small town are here. Down the street is the police department and town office, which looks like a quiet storefront. Next to that is Rose Hill Park, an expansive green with a brick walk to a large gazebo. Iron benches with wooden slats dot the landscape. A green sign informs the visitor that Benjamin Berry (son of Henry Berry of King Clarke County) established the town in 1798.
A modern-looking housing development seems out of place amid the clapboard homes, some of which are mansions. American flags are the rule, not the exception, in this town.
At Jane's, flags are so much the rule that they are planted on each table. Jane's is open for breakfast at 6 a.m. and closes at 2 p.m. That's because the restaurant has only two employees: Mrs. Myers and Zelda Fishel, her able server.
In the back corner of the restaurant, facing the six-seat laminate counter, is the TV. Louie Anderson's "Family Feud" is playing. A Coca-Cola clock keeps time next to the TV. Near the restaurant's front are a couple of video games.
Miss Fishel, who has long black hair and a stinging dry wit, stands behind the counter and smokes her cigarette. Two men are seated at the counter. Mrs. Myers is in the kitchen, clad in a blue "Jane's Lunch" apron and dicing onions.
The kitchen is in back, right next to the counter, with a framed opening to keep Mrs. Myers in contact with the outside world and let her join in the harassing.
"You won't go hungry here," Miss Fishel says. "You might get abuse, but you won't go hungry."
"You can't go into McDonald's and watch TV," Tim Hudson, 47, says helpfully while seated at the counter. He picks up the remote and turns up the volume. He wears a blue muscle shirt, a "Proud to be an American" baseball cap with ribbons and a tiny hair braid down his back. He has been coming here since he was a teen-ager.
"It's like home," he says. "You come in here, sit down and talk while you're eating. They have real dishes and silverware, and you can carry on with the waitress."
Before he leaves, Miss Fishel comes around and makes him give her a quick back massage. Mr. Hudson runs his hands down her back, pressing with his thumbs.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Myers is in back, scooping out the homemade lasagna she prepared the night before and cooked in the morning. Some of her other specialties are bacon and eggs, roast beef and mashed potatoes, and coconut cream pie. The scrambled-egg sandwich with bacon on toast is a winner.
"If you are looking for American Heart [Association]-approved food," says Terry Reid, 53, seated next to Mr. Hudson, "you don't want to come here." Actually, Mrs. Myers says she has changed the menu somewhat to include healthy appetizers and salads. She concedes to putting a dish of albacore tuna and fruit salad on the menu.
"To tell you the truth, that really didn't go," Mrs. Myers says. "We have construction workers and farmers, and they don't eat that type of food."
A sign on the wall tells the Jane's story. Mrs. Myers' grandmother, Esther Clark Ashby, "a nice person and excellent cook," opened Jane's in 1943 and named it for her second daughter. The restaurant moved several times, including to a space that had been the Red Fox Inn, which "was frequented by Patsy Cline while she was engaged in singing at the community center."
Mrs. Myers' mother, Jane Elizabeth Ashby, took over the business in 1979 and moved to the current location 3 E. Main St. in 1985. Mrs. Myers used to work in the Clarke County public school system. Then her mother had a stroke six years ago.
"I didn't want the place to get out of the family, so I bought it," she says.
Mrs. Myers' 19-year-old daughter Amy handles the marketing, menu and advertising. ("And I don't have to pay her," Mrs. Myers exclaims, then stops. "Not true. I'm putting her through college.") Mrs. Myers' husband Sam comes in at lunchtime to help. Framed family pictures sit on a two-drawer filing cabinet behind the counter.
As Mrs. Myers says, it's a family place.

Culpeper is a big small town, with about 9,600 residents. From inside Gayheart Drug Store on the corner of Main and Davis streets, one can hear the constant grinding of traffic. Yet this pharmacy-diner is without doubt the place where people in town go.
With its long wood counter running the length of the store, Gayheart's plays host to rich and poor, famous and unknown, senators and governors. D.C. area TV news stations have been to Gayheart's. Yet local people mostly crowd the counter.
"If you sit here all day on a busy day," says pharmacist Richard Lee, "you'll see people from all walks of life, a cross section of society."
Time stands still at Gayheart's. Step up and have a seat on one of about a dozen rounded red cushions and order a milkshake, just like the chocolate shoppes of the 1950s would have made it. The atmosphere envelops you as you flip open the laminated menu with a simple heart on the corner.
"Ever since I can recall, there has always been a Gayheart's," says Bobby Button, 39, a dapper independent insurance agent with a mustache who digs into a chef's salad topped with bacon.
"I have two children, ages 7 and 4, and within the first 30 days of each of their lives, they were here. Now, they want to come all the time, so on Saturdays I bring 'em for lunch."
He says "the personal touch" keeps him coming back. Perhaps the prices do, too.
"You can get a cup of coffee here for 27 cents," says Mr. Lee, who owns the place. "That's a quarter plus tax."
The lunch special costs $2.45 plus a drink. The lunch menu's prices range from $2.15 to $3.95. The fare is not out of the ordinary: grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, egg slices and saltines, or a peach or pineapple ring with cottage cheese.
The hamburger patty is pressed thin. For a side order of chips, one of the 11 women who work for Mr. Lee just reaches up and pulls down a bag on display, emptying it onto a plate next to a hamburger. The waitresses wash dishes between orders in a small sink near the center of their workstation. A metal-and-glass case in the middle of the counter holds packages of cheese and peanut-butter crackers.
"Everything OK?" one of the employees asks in a soft voice, barely above a whisper. She pulls out her notepad to take an order from the next customer even before he has had time to look at the menu.
"We've all been here 100 years," says Jane Kyhl, who works behind the pharmacy counter. They all seem to like it.
The women vary in age from 28 to 80.
"It gets me out of the house," says Virginia Nash, a cashier. "It's a gossip place."
Not everyone here is boisterous; a gentleman with a graying beard sits off by himself, near the entrance, calmly dragging from his cigarette and drinking coffee. Still, Mr. Lee says part of the place's charm is that when it's busy, the limited seating forces customers into socializing.
"You get stuck in a seat where you have to sit next to somebody," he says.
Mr. Lee bought this place in 1990 from Marshall Gayheart Jr., whose father bought the business in 1928. Mr. Gayheart Jr. still comes in every few days and opens up in the early morning hours for Mr. Lee so the younger man can get some rest. (Mr. Lee says that since he bought the place, he has had to change most of the restaurant's equipment, but not the menu.)
Mr. Lee's pharmacy is within a few steps of the deep-fat fryer, so he's within earshot of "the horsing around," as Mr. Button calls it, between the customers and "the ladies."
Smoking is allowed, but there is no drinking and no cussing.
On the wall opposite the diner, near the front of the store, is a big map that reads, "Our Visitors to Gayheart's From Around the World." Little pushpins, either flags or hearts, represent the visitors to the diner. They are splattered all over the map of the United States. A crowd of pins come from Europe, and some are arranged on Australia and South America.
"People traveling through see this counter," says seven-year-employee Gladys Southard, "and they'll say, 'Oh, I haven't seen one of these for 16 years. I have to have an ice-cream soda.' "

A crude sign at Bollinger's Homestyle Restaurant in Thurmont, Md., sort of sets the tone for the place. It shows several men, their backs to the camera, seated at the counter, each with their posteriors halfway exposed. It reads, "The crack of dawn at Bollinger's Restaurant."
The restaurant is in a strip mall down the street from the center of town. (A huge sign in the door reads, "Retaliation for Our Nation.") Bollinger's has a long brown laminate counter, six booths and a long table in the front. The specials are printed in black Magic Marker on a board in the back. There's always a line of Scripture on the menu board, below the specials. Today it's Daniel 6:26.
"We always have a Scripture verse," owner Donna Bollinger says. "If we leave it up for too long, people will say, 'Donna, it's time to change the Scripture.' "
With a population of about 5,500, Thurmont is known mostly for its proximity to Camp David, the presidential retreat, and the Catoctin Mountains. ("We kept hearing that one of the [Sept. 11] planes was heading for David," Mrs. Bollinger says. "People were calling us from all over the country to make sure everything back here was OK.")
Bollinger's also is near Frederick, Md., and Gettysburg, Pa. Two larger restaurants in town the Cozy Inn and Mountain Gate Family Restaurant cater specifically to tourists, complete with their own gift shops and drop-off lanes. Bollinger's caters to the townie; it's where people who live in this area go to be treated like one of the family, if not pampered.
"I know you can do it," waitress Julie Wantz says in a maternal tone to an elderly customer who expresses skepticism about his meal. "You say it every time, but you always eat it."
She whirls around to pass on a waitressing secret.
"If you talk to them like you've known them all your life, you'll be all right," she says. "And remember, they're always right, because they're only people."
Some local people come in every day. That includes the ROMEO Club, which stands for Retired Old Men Eating Out, which meets every morning at 8. Miss Wantz whirls around to tell another customer about the "baby pool." Carrie Witmer, 23, who's scraping the grill, is 38 weeks pregnant. ("Any day now," she says.) Customers are betting on the day and time of delivery. Miss Wantz says about 50 customers have signed up.
Greg Hill, 56, of Rocky Ridge, Md., six miles east of town, says he has been coming to Bollinger's for the past 19 years. He puts a dollar into the pool and writes down, "Oct. 27, 1 p.m., girl."
"I had the 14th, but she didn't come through for me," Mr. Hill says. "If I win, I'll donate the money to the baby."
Mrs. Bollinger, who prides herself on specials such as potato soup, fried chicken and fish and chips, has owned the restaurant since 1989.
"And it's got the same old ugly wallpaper," Ms. Witmer snaps, looking up at the light-green walls.
"That's wallboard," Mrs. Bollinger retorts.
Mrs. Bollinger bought the restaurant from Elmer "Junie" Bollinger, her father-in-law. Ms. Witmer has been working there "since I could reach the glasses" on the shelf. She has quit and come back twice.
Her baby will be the fifth generation of Bollingers since the restaurant was opened, says Ms. Witmer, who adds dryly, "The baby will not work here."
The blond, ponytailed Miss Wantz offers Mr. Hill his regular iced tea. ("Most of the time I can write an order before I come up to the table," she says.) Born and raised in Thurmont, the pretty, 34-year-old Miss Wantz lives in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.
"Believe it or not," she says, "I'm a single mother with two small children, I work in a small restaurant, and I make it.
"I'll be here as long as the restaurant is open," she declares, "or until I win the lottery."
Mr. Hill orders the special of the day, hamburger steak, which features two side vegetables. "I'll have the succotash," he says with a smile, "light on the lima beans."
Mr. Hill usually comes in three times a week.
"They spoil me," he says. "There aren't many places like this." He is in the real estate business, so he often tells customers about Bollinger's.
"When they put something that I like as a special, they let me know," Mr. Hill adds. Every Friday for the past 27 years, he notes, the specials have been fish, veal and salmon.
His hamburger steak and mashed potatoes come swimming in gravy, with corn on the side. He eats every last bit.
"They cater to the working person," says Sharyn Beckley, 58, with her husband, Bob, 59, from Lewistown, Md. "If they know you are a working person, they get you in and out quickly. That's important for a working person."
Over the sink is Ms. Witmer's wedding picture, squarely in the center. Surrounding it are news articles about different customers, snapshots and children's drawings.
"Most of the customers have been coming for years. They're like family," Mrs. Bollinger says. "When there's a death in the community, it's felt like part of the family."
A snapshot on the counter was taken by Mrs. Bollinger when she broke an egg on the griddle and it took the shape of a duck.
When the town had its 250th anniversary parade, Bollinger's took out one of its booths and put it on a float.
"If this town were Mayberry, this is the type of diner that would be there," says Jerry Free, 38, from Rocky Ridge, Md.

WHAT: Bollinger's Homestyle Restaurant
WHERE: 224 K N. Church St., Thurmont, Md.
WHEN: 6 a.m.-1::30 p.m. Monday; 6 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday; 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday; 6 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Friday; 6 a.m.-noon Saturday
PHONE: 301/271-9804

WHAT: Gayheart Drug Store
WHERE: 101 E. Davis St., Culpeper, Va.
WHEN: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday
PHONE: 540/829-3600
WHAT: Jane's Lunch
WHERE: 3 E. Main Street, Berryville, Va.
WHEN: 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday
PHONE: 540/955-3480

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