Americana Pie 

Bluegrass music and down-home cooking put the County Seat on the map.

If you insist on seeking both, however, the County Seat Restaurant is a decent compromise. Located in the village of Powhatan Court House on Route 13, about 35 miles west of downtown Richmond, it offers music most Saturday nights — usually bluegrass, with occasional rock 'n' roll — and down-home cooking befitting its rural locale.

The restaurant is a family affair — no one carries the title of chef — whose cooks include three generations of the same family. Owner Janie Dean is assisted by her daughter Tracy Cifer and her mother, 87-year-old Mattie Clayton. "Granny," as she is known to all, makes the desserts, which in season include blackberry cobbler that Granny makes after picking the fruit herself. Other noteworthy desserts include chocolate chess pie and a caramel-like buttermilk pie.

Most meals are under $10, including a weekend buffet. The County Seat does a brisk after-church business on Sunday, as well as at lunch during the week.

Although you can order from the regular menu, the weekend buffet is probably the best bet. Typically it includes crispy fried chicken, hamburger steak with dark gravy, North Carolina-style barbecue, roast beef, and barbecued ribs tender enough that the meat falls off without much help.

Among the choices on the regular menu, the shrimp had been steamed just right; an 8-ounce sirloin, topped with mushrooms and sautéed onions, was prepared medium rare, as ordered; tilapia was uncharacteristically firm but nonetheless tasty; and the slice of prime rib could have been thicker and juicier.

Side dishes, which were the same for both the buffet and entrees, included redskin or mashed potatoes — the latter a little sticky — lima beans, green beans, cole slaw and cucumbers. All meals include a pedestrian salad bar.

Daily luncheon specials run for such standards as ham, ribs, roast beef, chicken, catfish, spaghetti and a taco salad. A signature sandwich combines chicken salad sweetened with bits of mandarin orange and thin slices of salty Virginia ham. A tomato-based vegetable soup was thick with corn, limas, potatoes, carrots and chunks of chicken.

Adding to the local touch are plastic water and soft-drink glasses that advertise local businesses, including a chiropractor, jeweler, physical therapist and Chevy dealer.

There is a full bar and the entire place is nonsmoking.

One of the problems with music-with-dinner is that restaurants often jack up the prices to pay for the band. The County Seat gets around that by imposing a modest cover charge — $3 with dinner; $5 without — and further provides a big jar for cash contributions to the musicians.

One group that performs semiregularly is Copper Ridge, a five-member bluegrass band that plays both its own compositions and standards. Each member of the quintet displayed virtuosity in plucking and bowing their respective instruments — guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and bass — and together their voices melded soothingly.

By arriving late enough to hear the music, which begins at 8 p.m., we found the buffet bar pretty much decimated, and what remained was lukewarm, a condition that is both unsatisfying and potentially unhealthful.

Regulars avoid this situation by coming early, eating in the front dining room and then adjourning to the back room for the music.

Because the lights are turned down low to spotlight the band, it was difficult to read the menu, and when the food arrived, the dimness made it difficult to distinguish the fat from the meat on the prime rib.

Having said all of that, the Saturday night experience at the County Seat can be a pleasant one.

On a recent Saturday night, most members of the audience were neither eating nor drinking, but rather tapping their toes and occasionally singing along with the music.

A graying couple turned the front of the room into an impromptu dance hall, and the man even coaxed one of the cooks into a twirl around the floor. S

County Seat Restaurant
3867 Old Buckingham Road, Powhatan
Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, breakfast buffet, 8-10 a.m., dinner buffet, 5:30-8:30 p.m.; Sunday, brunch 9-11:30 a.m., buffet, noon-3 p.m.

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