By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1998 Gourmet Magazine
Last autumn during Virginia’s apple harvest, Mrs. Rowe of Staunton was a very busy individual. She and her son, Mike, went to a nearby orchard and trucked home ten bushels of York apples. For weeks, Mrs. Rowe peeled those apples every morning—by hand, of course, because that is the only way she can be certain the bad parts are all cut away. And when Mike suggested, as he does every year, that his eighty-four-year-old mother get someone to help her, she demurred, as she does every year.
Each day she cored and peeled forty pounds of apples, then set to work on them in her restaurant in Staunton. She combined them with chunks of lean beef, suet, sugar, cider, raisins, and spice; let the mixture age four weeks; and finally produced several hundred pounds of mincemeat. A small portion was sold by the quart to people who don’t have the time or skill to make their own; but the bulk went into mince pies that were baked and served warm, blanketed with high-spirited rum custard sauce. It is safe to say that Mrs. Rowe watched most of those delicious slices get eaten, for she spends nearly every afternoon circulating in the restaurant dining room, greeting old friends and passersby, making sure they’re enjoying their meals.
Mrs. Rowe doesn’t do everything at her restaurant—it only seems that way. Her hospitality and her expertise as a cook infuse the Shenandoah Valley way station that last year celebrated a half-century in business. Just yards from Interstate 81, MRS. ROWE’S RESTAURANT is a reminder that the word “restaurant” refers to restoring one’s self, in both body and spirit. A visit with Mrs. Rowe is an encounter with a culinary life-force that makes the world go round.
She is a small, tidy woman with white hair, a sweet voice burnished by the tender accent of Virginia’s western hills, and the piercing gaze of a maestro whose career has been driven by a passion. In her case, the passion is for food, served the way she was taught when she was a girl growing up in the hills of Allegheny County.
As we speak with her at a table in the dining room, a waitress carries past a tray that includes a small bowl of macaroni and cheese, one of about a dozen side dishes on the menu every day. “Ooo, look!” she says, her attention magnetically drawn away from conversation to the mound of golden-orange noodles venting buttery steam from the top of the baked casserole and laced with chewy shreds of cheese. “Macaroni and cheese!” she exclaims like a thirsty oenophile observing the uncorking of a bottle of 1959 Lafite-Rothschild. “Doesn’t that look good?”
Nothing escapes Mrs. Rowe’s determination to do things right. Buttermilk biscuits are rolled out every morning and brought to the table oven-hot; apple-sauce—homemade, of course—is served warm; in the summer, rhubarb cobbler, pie, and bread pudding are made from ripe-that-day stalks she pulls from her garden at home. Mike tells of the time a lazy cook at the restaurant came upon a case of instant mashed potatoes that had been left as a sample by a salesman. The cook figured he could use the reconstituted potato flakes instead of laboriously making potatoes Mrs. Rowe’s way—peeling, boiling, mashing, and mixing them. Within minutes of the instant spuds appearing in the dining room, Mrs. Rowe knew something was wrong. She marched into the kitchen and heaved the batch into a dumpster.
Even before the creation of this restaurant, Mildred Rowe was destined for renown. Her first café, in the small town of Goshen, was renamed The Far Famed Restaurant after a customer from California stopped by and declared, “This food is so good that everybody ought to know about it!” Once Mildred married Willard Rowe, proprietor of a forty-five seat café in Staunton called Perk’s Bar-B-Q, the die was cast. She cooked during the day and waitressed at night. Perk’s transformed into Rowe’s Steak House, and gradually more and more of Mrs. Rowe’s strapping specialties were added to the menu, which before long became an encyclopedia of classic country cooking.
Sustained right from the start by locals who valued the comfort food they found here, and soon discovered by wayfarers along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, Rowe’s earned a sterling reputation for inexpensive southern meals served in a wholesome, cozy setting. For many years, it was known as Rowe’s Family Restaurant, but recently the term “family” was dropped from the name because of the dubious connotations the word has assumed in the restaurant business. Mike explains: “Too often, `family’ now means a menu of quick-fix meals, sandwiches, and hamburgers or a sloppy buffet where you have to fight with other customers to get your food. We will never go to buffet-style service here. When Mother called this place a family restaurant, she was expressing a degree of civility as well as describing the sort of food that families have traditionally gathered around a table to share.”
Rowe’s insistence on the old ways of cooking and serving meals is something of an anomaly, especially for a big, busy restaurant at the end of an interstate highway exit ramp. Despite its setting in a landscape of vapid brand name franchised eateries, Rowe’s remains unspoiled. And there are still plenty of joyful eaters around, including the flocks of snowbirds heading south along 1-81 in the fall and returning in the spring, as well as a cadre of locals who fill its big dining rooms every day of the year (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and the Fourth of July, when it is closed so the Rowe family can spend the holidays together).
The devotion of some customers is legendary. Many years ago, a pregnant diner went into labor but refused to leave her table until she could eat some fried chicken. (Rowe’s chicken, skillet cooked to order, demands a thirty-five minute wait. The result is spectacular—brittle red-gold skin with a savory crunch hugging moist, tender meat.) Mrs. Rowe took matters into her own hands: She escorted the young woman to her car and drove her to the emergency room.
There is a warm, coming home feeling about walking into Rowe’s, especially in the morning. The big, fresh sticky buns and sweet rolls on the front-room counters and the aroma of country ham sizzled on a grill and dripping red-eye gravy are right out of a farm kitchen. The locally favored morning meal is a brace of oven-hot biscuits topped with gravy, of which Rowe’s offers three different kinds: sausage gravy, tenderloin gravy, and creamy chipped beef. We recently fell in love with a new item, pumpkin pancakes, which are earthy-orange and fetchingly sweet—marvelous partners for that good Virginia ham.
Later in the day, whether you sit in the older, semi private booths or in the new, paneled dining room, the sight and smell of multitudes of side dishes on their way to other people’s tables—corn pudding, green beans cooked with ham hock, yams, warm stewed apples, and sweet baked tomatoes—make us think of some Thanksgiving feast about to happen. Dinner rolls are tall and yeasty, and the great main courses (other than the four-star fried chicken) include pot roast, turkey pie, and fried-then-baked circles of pork tenderloin so tender that light fork pressure separates a piece as if it were cake. For dessert, you want mince pie in the autumn, warm rhubarb cobbler or bread pudding in the summer, and apple pie any time.
Both Mrs. Rowe and Mike agree that one reason the restaurant has been able to maintain its high standards is that employees tend to stay a long time, ensuring consistency. Many signature dishes not created by Mrs. Rowe are the legacy of the late John Morris, Rowe’s head cook for thirty-nine years, and of Vivian Obie, now in her forty-fourth year. Even the dishwashers, Mike notes, all have at least six years on the job—a remarkable statistic for a position that is notoriously transient. Why do employees remain so loyal to Rowe’s? Mike explains: “Good benefits, pension, and health plan.” His mother nods her head in agreement, but adds one more logical reason for employee loyalty: “We feed them!”
Route 11 Potato Chips (new location)