Road food ahead

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February 12, 2010

1:07 AM

Every summer of my childhood and adolescence, my family has taken a roadtrip either northwest to Michigan, or southwest to Oklahoma. An important part of the road trip for us was always the hunt for roadside food. My mother has a sixth sense for it. She can spot a good diner at 60 mph. For one thing, she knows how to read a parking lot; a good mix of Cadillacs and pickup trucks are a clear indicator of legit grub. The rationale is that if good ole boys and retirees are both drawn to a restaurant, it’s worth checking out.

From these summers on the road, I have gained a serious respect for diners, burger joints, drive-ups, drive-ins — in short, every form of non-chain, inexpensive American food to be had within a few miles of the interstate. The food is important, of course; on the highway where gas station snacks and fast-food dominate finding real food is essential. A really good roadside joint is nourishing on another level too. It’s heartening just to see that it is still there as an option, open for business. Mom-and-pop restaurants are rarely built just off the highway anymore. They can’t compete with chain restaurants that provide a predictable restaurant experience to weary travelers unwilling to take chances on local restaurants they know nothing about. As a result, most local roadside food has been around for a while.

In the fast-changing landscape of roadside America, a gem like the 57-year-old Queen Anne Dari Snak stands out. Windows cluttered with local business cards, multi-colored fluorescents under a vaguely space-aged awning, and a walk-up design give it an air of history.

It stands only two miles from campus, about as far as New Town, yet it is widely unknown among students at the College. This is, in large part, because it is on Merrimac Trail. Before the interstate system was built, Merrimac Trail — also called Route 143 — was a section of the now defunct Route 168, which carried a lot of east-west traffic. Traffic was diverted away from the road once I-64 was completed.

This lack of traffic, and therefore lack of competition for real estate, is in part what has preserved the Queen Anne for so long. Even though the restaurant still stands, some changes have occurred. Monica Taylor, Queen Anne’s manager, has seen many of these changes. She grew up in York County and remembers when Route 143 was two lanes and heavily wooded.

“I didn’t even know this place was here,” Taylor said. “It was everyone’s best kept secret.”

Taylor said the building was one of the first few built during the area in the ’50s. Her husband Calvin set his sights on the Queen Anne at age 15. Frequently, he would visit and talk to then-owner Sofos Takis.

Over the years, the menu has seen surprisingly few changes.

“We’ve got the same barbecue, the same footlongs, the same chili recipe,” Monica said. “It’s been mounted over there on the wall for I don’t know how long.”

Occasionally new items are added. Green beans and mac and cheese used to be offered, and now they’ve added zucchini — but the Quenne Anne is, for the most part, as it has always been. Monica explained that regular customers often request things that aren’t even on the menu.

“We still get people in here in their 60s who have been coming here since they were five years old,” Monica said. “Everyone’s got their favorite. If they can explain it to me and we’ve got the ingredients, I’ll always try to accommodate.”

The Queen Anne also puts up ads for local businesses and churches, sponsors little league baseball, and has given generations of Williamsburg kids their first summer jobs. Monica keeps the menu simple and inexpensive to keep it family-oriented.

“When I bought this place I was raising a family of five,” she said. “Do you know how hard it is to raise a family of five? Hard. So, I try to keep meals under five dollars.”

The food is simple, but unique, and it keeps people coming back.

“I don’t know what it is,” Monica said. “It’s something about this old building.”

No matter what building it was housed in, the food is the main attraction for any customer. When faced with a menu as extensive as the Queen Anne Dari Snak’s, it can be difficult to know where to start. There are a few items that are great indicators of overall quality at any barbecue or hamburger joint: coleslaw and potato salad. If a restaurant is cutting corners, the first thing to go can be these simple salads that are easily bought in bulk. Queen Anne, however, does not disappoint. The coleslaw has color, tang and sizeable pieces of carrot and cabbage — and not like the cabbage bits in mayonnaise that get served at some lesser establishments. Their potato salad is well balanced, no-frills and homemade — just as they proudly advertise on the menu.

Their hamburgers are absolutely satisfying. I’ll upset everyone and say that the burgers are better all-around than a Five Guys burger. The burger is a solid, hand-formed patty on a bun toasted on the flat top — plus toppings. On top of that, a junior burger, which is big enough, costs $1.75, and you can get a jumbo for just one dollar more.

I haven’t eaten anything on the menu that disappoints. The fried oyster sandwich is excellent, the onion rings are top notch and there is a variety of milkshakes and sundaes.

Beyond the food, the Queen Anne is also a significant piece of the city’s culture.

“The Queen Anne Dari Snak brings us back to an emotional sense of why we belong here, and food is one of the few things that can do that,” Bobby Moeller ’10 said. “It’s a hearty meal, it’s dank, but it’s also full of love.”

The emphasis on Williamsburg’s colonial history as the center of the community denies, to some extent, the continuing story of the city.

“Especially for Williamsburg, I think there’s a huge divide between the students and the town, and you can see it in our attitudes,” Moeller said. “It helps us see the town as something bigger than us and our reason for being here, and grounds us in Williamsburg as a place. Because after four years we could leave only remembering the school, but going to places like the Queen Anne Dari Snak really grounds our memories more firmly.”

The small building that Monica and her husband have known since childhood still holds recipes and memories from more than half a century ago.

“It’s my baby,” she said. “If you love a business, you do what you can for it. And I do love it.”

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