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John's Family Restaurant

June 07, 2009

RIPPON, W.Va. --John's Family Restaurant looks like a mountain cabin converted to a restaurant, perched on the side of U.S. 340, Berryville Pike, just south of Rippon, W.Va.

The road heads south toward the Virginia-West Virginia border. The sign reads "John's Family Restaurant: My Pappy's Place." John himself is long gone but his restaurant survives, serving nostalgia, patriotism, faith and country cooking.

The reputation of John's Restaurant intrigued us on our trips to Berryville, Va. We zipped by, noticing the number of cars parked outside the house and grounds. We especially noted the rotund plaster statue of a well-fed chef who enticed travelers to stop and have a bite to eat. One of my students said it was his favorite restaurant. Then my brother-in-law said they made the best crab bisque he had ever tasted.

So, on one of our trips home from Berryville, at 4 p.m., tea time, we stopped. John's is not an English tea house. The waitress came out with warm bread and iced water, ready to serve us an early dinner of a country platter or food from the sea. We insisted that we only wanted tea. Well, coffee, actually. My companion, the Professor, ordered an apple dumpling with vanilla ice cream and I got a peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream. The waitress assured us they were homemade.

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We were stunned by the restaurant's collection of memorabilia -- a buggy, a copper-wringer washing machine, a copper fire extinguisher and a large angel doll in front of the mirror. We also took in our fellow diners -- grandparents with a grandchild; a family ranging from baby to elder; adult children with aging parents.

The apple dumpling was the winning dessert. It was a whole apple, wrapped in dough, sweetened lightly with a hint of tartness. The warm dumpling and the cold ice cream contrasted delightfully. The peach cobbler was a bit disappointing as the cobbler was doughy and the peaches were bland. But between the two of us, we ate every bit.

The coffee did not taste good to us. It was weak and did not carry any caffeine punch. We have been drinking very strong, fresh-ground coffee at home and John's could not compare.

We considered the menu for a future adventure and decided to try breakfast and the crab soup.

The second time we arrived at John's Restaurant, we followed our plan. The Professor ordered a breakfast platter with chicken-fried steak, two eggs, biscuits and home fries. I ordered crab soup and a grilled-cheese sandwich with bacon. While we waited for our order to be served, I walked around and looked at all the antiques.

The number of items that decorate John's Restaurant could be the basis of a scavenger hunt. The list of items to find could include a rolling pin, an iron lantern, jugs, pots, candle forms, stained glass windows, quilts, an old-time radio, a ragtime piano, a banjo, a child's dress in fine batiste, the Pledge of Allegiance, a crèche and a little store tucked in a corner.

When the food came on its white plates, it was immediately gratifying. The Professor bit into the hot, home fries and declared them to be perfect -- crisp, meaty and not too salty. He poured white, sausage gravy over his biscuits and raised his eyes heavenward as he tasted it. The biscuits werelight and fluffy and the gravy was a smooth consistency with bits of sausage. He liked it. The poached eggs were done to perfection.

But he balked when he tasted the chicken fried steak. "Chicken fried steak should be a minute steak or a round steak," he said. "This is a ground beef patty in a batter with more gravy." But he ate the chicken-fried hamburger, as well as the two eggs, two biscuits, and home fries.

My sandwich was grilled, white bread filled with American cheese and strips of real, freshly cooked bacon. This was the classic sandwich prepared in the classic manner.

But the soup was a puzzle. The menu said "crab soup," but it was thick and hearty, more of a crab gravy than a crab soup. The same white sauce used to make the sausage gravy seemed to be the base for the soup. It did not seem quite right.

There are many different recipes for crab soup. I prefer soup that has some broth -- fish or chicken, with added milk, whole or condensed, or cream. Nevertheless, this soup was real and homemade.

A minor point, but important to me, is the quality of lemons used in glasses of water. At John's, the lemon was fresh and sweet. I ate mine as if it were dessert, for it cleared my senses with its citric tartness. We sat back and talked for a while. No rush here.

The restaurant opened in the early '60s but the feel is Victorian. This is food a grandmother would recognize. Portions were generous, the food was real and prepared in-house. This kind of food would likely please both travelers and local diners. The courtesy of the staff would impress. And stories of long ago, remembered when investigating John's collection of collectibles, might fill the trip home.

We exited, filled to the gills. Trucks rumbled by. We nodded at a painted carousel horse, saluted the flag, and walked down the handicapped ramp. The dressed stone walls toward the rear were covered with ivy, both English and poison, and glorious Bishop's weed was blooming. And as we headed back home to Maryland, we talked about our grandmothers and the food they cooked.

Omni Vore is a pseudonym for a Herald-Mail freelance writer who reviews restaurants anonymously to avoid special treatment.

John's Family Restaurant

1/2

Food: 3 stars (out of 5)

Service: 4 stars

Ambiance: 5 stars

Value: 3 stars

Address: U.S. 340, Rippon, W.Va.

Phone: 304-725-4348

Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday through Saturday; closed Sunday

Style: Down-home country cooking

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