The Roanoker Restaurant
Restaurants come and go. It’s almost a cliché in the business, and as any veteran owner or manager will tell you, the long hours, grueling work and the chaotic conditions drive most new restaurants into history within the first year. Getting one to last over 70, well, that’s just miraculous – and a different kind of history altogether.
If there is any restaurant in Roanoke that deserves to be called an institution, it’s The Roanoker on Colonial Avenue. (Hey! That’s the name of the magazine you’re holding! And was long a point of good-natured consternation for the late E.C. Warren, long-time owner.)
This venerable eatery has been feeding the Star City’s multitudes since 1941– about a decade before it was the Star City. Its combination of traditional, tasty fare and modest prices are a recipe that seems to be a hit in the city that shares its name.
Most of us can think of a location somewhere in town where restaurants seem to cycle in and out, opening with high hopes, but quickly flaming out. The Roanoker is kind of the opposite; it’s blown through five different locations since opening up on Jefferson Street on a $600 loan in 1941. (Founder Craft on Warren used to feed soldiers passing through town on trains.) Just let the cashier catch you looking at the photo of the first location in the lobby, and she’ll run down all of the moves: To two other locations downtown, then to Towers Mall in the ‘60s, and down the road to its current site in the early ‘80s.
Current owner Butch Craft (a nickname bestowed by her older brother, whom she eventually forgave) traces her own history at The Roanoker back to 1970, when she started working as a part-time office helper during college, and “became part of the family.” She eventually worked in most of the restaurant’s positions, and the next logical step was management. She had begun buying a majority share in The Roanoker when owner E.C. Warren suddenly died in 2008.
Craft told me that the recipes for many of the restaurant’s staples (biscuits, sausage gravy, etc.) date to the very beginning, and she even shared some early menus with me to show how the theme of low-priced, quality food has persisted. I’d love to fire up the old flux capacitor and take a time machine back to 1944, when the menu had a “Large T Bone Steak, Waffle Potatoes, Hot Rolls and Butter” for a buck and a quarter. Yow! And that was the priciest thing on the bill. You could get a hot pork sandwich with potatoes and gravy for 30 cents, and wash it down with a tall glass of buttermilk for a nickel. On the other hand, I’m having a hard time seeing the goose liver cold plate as a bargain, even at a mere 40 cents.
On a recent Thursday morning this year, we started our day with breakfast at The Roanoker, and there was no shortage of Roanokers fueling up. The menu boasts a variety of specials blending breakfast favorites (one of my favorite food groups). Most start with the usual two-egg foundation, and build from there. Grits, hot cakes, sausage, bacon, ham and “hot Roanoker biscuits.” I got the “stimulus package” special (I told you they were economical), which featured some fantastic sausage gravy and crispy hash browns. There’s nothing too surprising – no eggs Benedict or salmon frittatas– but with red-eye gravy up for grabs, who needs ‘em? The coffee was hot (H&C, of course) and the service was as crisp as the bacon.
On a return trip for dinner, we crossed paths with more old-school favorites. I chose the grilled pork tenderloin, and though I like my pork a little rarer than this was served, it was nevertheless flavorful and juicy, and the fried apples gave a sweet counterpoint. Unfortunately for me, my wife’s honey-glazed salmon was even better, moist and light and with a wonderful flavor that salmon only gets from the grill.
Is The Roanoker the most exciting and innovative eatery in Roanoke? Well, maybe not. I didn’t see any sushi, or spanakopita, or escargot on the menu. But you know what else I didn’t see? Prices over about $12. What I did see was good food, warm and family-like service, and a restaurant that’s been offering them since before Pearl Harbor. They must be doing something right.