What Liberty Valance lacks in culinary excellence it more than makes up for in engaging atmosphere. 

Howdy Pardner!

Ever wonder what lies beyond the kitschy covered-wagon entrance of ? I never did. I just assumed it was the kind of place that specialized in cheap beer and secondhand smoke. But I was wrong, at least partly. Perhaps its proprietors, Shane and Carl Mason, describe it best on their business card: "very unique Western décor in a family atmosphere." Let's break that down. "Very unique" is an understatement. Weathered wooden structural antiques, stained-glass windows, old mantels and even a faux stagecoach divide the dining area into various rooms. Every available surface is home to some piece of Americana, be it railroad memorabilia, old ranch tools or movie prints. In what little space remains, the owners display an array of unlikely merchandise so that, for example, you might pick up a "vampire make-up kit" or some school supplies on your way out. The next clause, "Western décor," is certainly apt. The décor draws heavily from the classic John Ford Western, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." Indeed, Liberty Valance has something of the feel of one of those touristy "Trading Posts" that you see off the highways out West. The final clause, "family atmosphere" also rings true, as long as your family likes to catch a buzz off secondhand smoke, as apparently many families do here. The interior is both dizzying and, at the same time, cozy — like an overstocked antiques store but without that dingy mildew feel. And lest some readers may call to mind a certain image from a bygone bar, there are no oversized dust bunnies perilously perched atop dead animal heads like those at the old Texas Wisconsin Border Cafe. Which, in my view, is a good thing. [image-1](Stacy Warner / richmond.com)The menu at Liberty Valence is surprisingly extensive. Appetizers (about $4) are mostly of the deep-fried variety, and salads and sandwiches (about $6) cover all the usual basics. It's in the entrée category where things get a little wild. There are about 11 steak entrées and a handful of barbecued rib options ($8.95 to $18.95). There's a section that features some "greasy spoon" Italian-style entrees like spaghetti with sausage ($7.95) and chicken Parmesan ($7.95). Then there's the Southern section that boasts dishes like pork chops ($7.95) and fried chicken ($7.95). And to round things out, there's seafood — mostly deep-fried, like breaded shrimp or oysters ($10.95). Finally, the menu comes with an insert that describes the extensive specials for each day of the week. Between all the stuff on the walls and all the stuff on the menu, darned if we weren't as confounded as a couple of Eastern city slickers in the Wild West town of Shinbone. To buy some time, we ordered up a basket of steak-cut onion rings ($3.95), which were crispy and delicious. Though I expressed a powerful hankering for cattle flesh, the server took one look at me and steered me towards the chicken and dumplings special ($6.95). The side dishes were good — I chose fried apples and butterbeans — but if the bullets hadn't killed Mr. Valance this chicken dish just might have. It was very white, very thick and very pastelike with clots (dumplings) and chicken pieces. It had no discernable seasoning, no vegetables, no color. The only positive thing I can say about it is that if cowboys made chicken and dumplings, I feel certain they'd make it something like this. And if cowboys ate school-lunch pizzas, our other entrée, a cheese pizza ($5.95), would also have fallen squarely in the cowboy genre. I'll not dwell on a mediocre apple pie that tasted faintly of freezer ($2.95), and the rice pudding special that tasted more savory than sweet because, despite our culinary experience, this place was so likable that I want to encourage you to visit — just not for dinner. We discovered, as apparently many other people have before us, that Liberty Valance serves a great American-style breakfast — on the Sunday we visited the place was already filling up by 8:30 a.m. No frilly brunch items here, just the hearty basics. And if you're lucky, as we were, you might just get to dine inside the

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