April 13, 2005 News & Features » Cover Story


Great moments in restaurant history. 

Half-Way House

This roadside tavern in Chesterfield County has stood since the 18th century on the old stage road, now Route 1, between Richmond and Petersburg. The name springs from the stop the stages made on the approximately 30-mile trip between the cities. Legend holds that Charles Dickens visited in 1842 when he came to Richmond. Another writer, the poet James Whitcomb Riley, also stopped off and committed a 19th-century tagging: He etched some of his verse on a wall. He was yet unknown, so the proprietors promptly wiped the slate clean. The building also served as a headquarters for Union troops during 1864. It remains a restaurant.

Morton's Tea Room

This was a private home upstairs and a restaurant down, with iced tea, good food and hospitality. Opened in 1952, Mrs. Julia Bell Morton's eatery featured legendary yeast rolls, buttered sweet potatoes and chicken in all its permutations. When the tearoom closed in 1991, the faithful trailed into the street for one final buttery roll. The tearoom is a Virginia tradition of hospitality: part restaurant, part home, and all delicious. Health inspectors would have an inedible cow today if one even appeared.

The Miller & Rhoads Tea Room

As a measure of just how powerful the tearoom mystique was, the downtown department store called its restaurant one. Gone for 15 years, the fifth-floor room featured dainty sandwiches, multilayer chocolate cakes and frozen-fruit salads. The atmosphere included Eddie Weaver on the organ, fashion shows with local models and long lines of children waiting to see Santa Claus. If the building is restored as a hotel, the name must be revived.

Jefferson Hotel

Maj. Lewis Ginter, the richest man in Richmond in the late 19th century, built the first Jefferson Hotel in 1895. He saw fantastic hotels on his travels and decided that his adopted city needed a first-class hostelry. The $1.5 million Jefferson was the result, designed by Carerre and Hastings, a New York architectural firm. Several restaurants went with such an operation. A grill room off the rotunda served steaks and chops, a carnivore's dream. A nearby shop offered cigars and newspapers. The upstairs dining room could seat 300 people. A fire after Ginter's death — caused by bad wiring in a storage room, not by a cook leaving the deep-fat fryer on — destroyed large parts of the hotel. It took another $1.5 million to restore the hotel, which reopened in 1907 as part of the festivities for the 300th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown.

Sally Bell's

This technically isn't a restaurant, but a bakery. Founded in the 1920s by Elizabeth Lee Milton and Sarah C. Jones, the business was called Sarah Lee Kitchen. Unfortunately, a large manufacturer of factory-made comestibles used the same name. After several negotiations, the bakery owners sold the use of their name in Virginia to the big company and the bakery changed its name to Sally Bell's Kitchen. No matter the name, the boxed lunches remain legendary. White boxes tied with string feature salad rolls (the chicken is a perennial favorite), potato salad, deviled eggs and cupcakes iced upside down. You can carry the boxes home, carry them to work or carry them outside for a picnic. Just don't expect to carry them anywhere unless you call and reserve yours or arrive before 11:30 a.m. to see what's left. After that, the boxed lunches are history.

G.W. Poindexter is a Richmond writer and historian.

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