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Here’s how a relative-newcomer family got welcomed to the fold that Roanoke has been comforted by for 75 years.
i have started and erased this article several times now. Why? Because, I—three-year resident of Roanoke—am pretty sure most readers of this magazine could write a better article about the iconic Roanoker Restaurant than I could. What new thing can I possibly say about a place so many Roanokers consider an extension of their home?
I’m sure you know The Roanoker opened in 1941 by E. Crafton Warren and his two partners as a lunch counter downtown, with 50 seats and 10 employees. Within months, the two friends were called to duty in WWII, but Warren, on account of his bad heart, was left to operate the restaurant. After the war, the partners changed their minds. Warren bought their shares and continued operations the only way he knew: welcoming “guests to [his] comfortable home for consistently good food at reasonable prices.”
You probably already know The Roanoker operated in five different locations before settling into its present spot in July 1981. By some marvelous gift, Mr. Warren was able to witness his “poor man’s country club” find its final home before he died. But it was Mr. Warren’s son, E.C., who owned the burgeoning restaurant by this time.
Now Butch Craft (whose first name is Renee and who started as The Roanoker’s secretary 45 years ago) owns and operates the restaurant at its present capacity: 300 seats, 75 employees, serving about 800 guests a day, 1,100 on Sundays and 1,400 on Mother’s Day. They can make 3,000 biscuits a day for take out (but not a biscuit more) and they still make everything from scratch—right down to their famous salads, breads and dressings.
Maybe I could offer fun tidbits about The Roanoker. Did you know the Bedford Boys ate their last meal at The Roanoker before being shipped off to war? Or that it has been featured by Southern Living twice as a top five restaurant in Virginia? Did you know in the ’40s The Roanoker served goose liver sandwiches for 40 cents, country ham for a dollar and filet mignon with French fries and salad for $1.85?
Their biscuits are “Today Show”-famous (featured in 2012) and worth every carb-filled calorie I have to work off after indulging in them. Same with their pancakes (blueberry are my favorite) and fried apples. Their country ham is also popular, though I find it salty—maybe my inner Yankee is to blame. They steam their chicken before baking or frying it; a process that retains moisture and is nearly impossible to duplicate at home. This explains why fried chicken is my obvious choice when ordering dinner to-go.
Sometimes when I eat at The Roanoker, I order like I’m a kid again. I like their taco salad, served with homemade chili (thick, not too spicy) atop a bed of iceburg lettuce and tortilla chips. I also like the Rachel. It’s a healthy, melted-cheese-and-turkey sandwich, with the bonus of rye bread and cole slaw in the middle (something I never knew possible until moving south). For a side, I order the potato salad (not like when I was a kid) because The Roanoker’s potato salad tastes different from any other potato salad I’ve eaten. Craft says it’s the same recipe they’ve used since 1941.
But to reduce The Roanoker to stats, food facts and quaint historic sentimentality feels sinful. It fails to capture The Roanoker’s spirit or explain how it’s thrived these 75 years now, despite a growing urban trend where affordable, homemade, Southern style fare is anything but chic. (But, you know, on the comeback as “Appalachian,” from what I hear.)
So instead, I will tell you a story about how The Roanoker, without even knowing it, helped my family on one of our hardest days.
The first time I ate at The Roanoker was March 23rd, the day our dog, Penny, died. Early that morning, my husband found Penny awake but unresponsive. Then she started seizing. After some panic and rushed planning, we got Penny to the vet and our three youngest kids to school. That left four of us—my husband, myself and our two oldest sons—to muddle through, waiting for the vet’s call. In the morning chaos, none of us had eaten breakfast. Nor were we hungry. But we had nothing else to do and we wanted to be together. So we went to The Roanoker.
I don’t remember tasting the food that day, only its homemade comfort. It would take later trips to appreciate the flakiness of the biscuits and the warm sweetness of the apples. What I do remember is feeling embraced; sheltered in our storm. Our waitress didn’t know our trauma; she didn’t have to. Out of the wealth of her Roanoker heart, she and the staff gave us exactly what we needed: a safe place and comfort food. In turn, we found solace in our grief and strength for making the hard, but right decision for our good girl.
That’s the best I can offer when it comes to The Roanoker: a story of its impact, and the assurance that as long as there are weddings and birthdays and pets who die, there will always be guests in The Roanoker home.
The Roanoker Restaurant, 2522 Colonial Avenue, Roanoke, theroanokerrestaurant.com; 344-7746.