Tucked away on the first floor of the State Capitol, Chicken’s had, for decades before Bannister’s arrival, been overseen by ol’ Chicken herself—the much loved Louise Olliff. She was known all the way into her 80s by her funny nickname and the killer sandwiches that made this cave of a deli a local legend.
Bannister may have had big shoes to fill, but they fit her well. A small woman with a no-nonsense motherly air, Bannister opened the walls and added to the menu. She now runs what is very obviously a tight ship catering to political bigwigs, tour groups and the general public alike.
Her job affords her access to some of the most high-profile people in Virginia politics — they come for BLTs, or hot dogs, or simple packs of aspirin. But Bannister isn’t political. She’s into sandwiches and talks cheerfully about her repertoire. The Heilig is named for Delegate George Heilig, who, rather than order any old thing, liked to concoct his own special snack: a turkey and country ham sandwich on wheat with a mere dab of mayo. Bannister was happy to oblige.
“He’d come in here and eventually convince three or four other people to order the thing while they were standing in line,” she says. The same thing happened with Sen. Joseph Gartlan, who wouldn’t order anything but the chicken salad on rye, lined with country ham and tomatoes. The sandwich now bears his name.
“People ask me if they’re hard to work with,” Bannister says, in reference to all the politicos. “Not at all.” In fact, on first meeting them, Bannister insists on calling everyone by their first name. She even has a collection of photos in frames on a shelf above the register, where the mugs of ex-govs and senators she holds in high regard eyeball the operations ad infinium.
The sandwich naming, of course, presents problems of its own. “Everyone wants to know when they’re going to get a sandwich named after them,” Bannister says. “I tell them, you have to go through a special process.”
By this she means you have to be a little crazy, propagating, in addition to your bright ideas about bills and legislation, the art of stacked sandwich meat with special bread and condiments combos. And it can’t just be your own private composite: A speaker of the house, say, must start a sandwich movement, to the extent that senators and delegates, long after he’s gone, might still send a lowly page for that thing he was always conjuring up.
To wit: former Gov. Doug Wilder may have roads and schools and buildings named after him, but he certainly doesn’t have a namesake sandwich at Chicken’s.
As for Bannister, she can scan those 8-by-10 glossies overhead and recall even the most specific tastes: “Watkins,” she says, “he likes a BLT with cheese and a sweetened tea.” John Hager, she remembers, “always got a tuna sandwich with pickles.”
Staring down current Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine’s Kodachrome, she folds her arms and picks at her throat with one hand, contemplating. “His father-in-law,” she says finally, “used to always get the hot dog. I told him, ‘Governor Holton, you’ve got to eat something better than a hot dog,’” at which point she suggested the Capitol Club sandwich. “S
Chicken’s Snack Bar State Capitol Building, First Floor 9th and Grace streets 698-7438
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