306 S Main St
Culpeper, VA 22701
Sometimes, a diner is just a diner. Other times, it’s a cultural event.
The Culpeper Diner, in northern Virginia, is one such place. Although it shares an old pharmacy building with it’s sister diner, a very respectable place where you can eat Peruvian chow as well as good ol’ American grub, the Culpeper Diner is a must-visit for anybody seeking vintage America.
Why? Well, for starters, the sign in the front window says it all. “Smoking allowed!” But nonsmokers, don’t get out of joint just yet. It’s worth suffering through the smoke (a hefty ventilation system works overtime and also serves to cool the place to about 62°F) just to see how America used to be, way back when. Especially in the South, where tobacco was King!
Walk in the door, and you will immediately be noted as a tourist, a first-timer. All eyes will swivel your way, if only for a moment. The rest of the diners are all hard-core regulars, and so the waitress will immediately ask, “Is smoking okay?” She’s letting you know right off that many a nonsmoker has mistakenly passed throughout this door before. And not been happy about it.
The clients are mostly older, mainly large of body (“Just plain BIG!” is how the waitress puts it) and, without exception, in the process of lighting up, puffing on, or putting out a cigarette. Most eat with a cigarette in one hand and fork in the other. It’s a sight that just begs to be seen, at least once. Interestingly enough, the ventilation system works so well that there is very little smoke and not all that much smell.
Once you get past the shock of walking in the door, you will notice how cute the place is, with a big chrome and neon clock on the wall. The menu is large and satisfying, especially if you are hungry. The portions are big, really big. And it’s surprising how often you will hear a regular order a breakfast that includes five pancakes, along with a mess of other stuff like eggs and toast and homefries. And even more surprisingly, most of them seem to be able to finish it all. And these are no little miniature pancakes, but full plate-wide discs of fluffy heaven.
One of the fun surprises on the menu is the Alaskan Belgium (their spelling, not mine) waffle which includes a scoop or two of ice cream. While the Culpeper Diner only serves vanilla ice cream, which might say something about the demographics, the waitress will happily walk outside to the sister café, and get you any one of 23 other flavors, including crazy vanilla (colored in red, white, and blue), cotton candy, or maple walnut. It’s hard to sit with a straight face, when she rattles off all 24 flavors from memory.
Specials include staples like pork chops and eggs ($5.95), that come with tasty, crispy home fries and biscuits. Pancakes come with such additions as pecans or chocolate chips, and the place is rightfully proud of their secret blend that does make for a light and tasty pancake. And if verbiage makes for a great meal, just check out the description of Pigs in a Blanket, which reads “3 Virginia link sausages cuddled in our pancakes…” How could you go wrong?
The Culpeper Diner is really something special. It’s a true throwback diner, not just one pretending to be vintage. It’s got sweet waitresses and cranky cigarette-wielding customers. It features a good ol’ Southern menu prepared by cooks from Honduras who make a mean hot sauce that should be liberally splashed on their great potatoes. The hot sauce is bottled up and offered for sale—a real coup in the land of Texas Pete. That alone ought to be enough to bring anyone in, despite the smoke.
Chow down, but don’t forget that Culpeper was front and center in some of the most interesting action of the Civil War. Several well-preserved battlefields are within close proximity (Brandy Station, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville) and the historic downtown is well worth the casual stroll. It’ll help you work off the pancakes and ice cream. And, the smoke.
Just Good Eats © 2011