91-Year-Old Restaurant Keeps Chugging Despite All The Changes In Downtown Roanoke
In the midst of downtown Ronaoke’s reinvention, a 91-year-old restaurant is coping with new growth all around it, by keeping things much the same.
What keeps the customers coming back?
“Because it's never changed,” responded Mark Saunders, who’s been a regular at the Texas Tavern since the 1970s.
Communities across Appalachia have used outdoor adventure as a marketing tool to attract new visitors—and new residents, too. Roanoke, Virginia, has succeeded, using its location amid the Blue Ridge Mountains along with new apartments downtown to attract millennials and reverse decades of population loss.
But while the change is good for the city’s energy and bottom line, it can be disconcerting. Ever since the ‘30s, customers have been able to walk into the Texas Tavern and order “two and a bowl with.” If you’re not familiar with the tavern’s lingo, that translates to, “two hamburgers and a bowl of chile beans with onions.” The Texas Tavern recently celebrated its 91st birthday and looks well on the way to its centennial.
The diner’s secret can be found amid the lunch hour, as church bells just up the street ring in the noon hour on a Tuesday in downtown Roanoke. Spring is showing, so despite the pandemic, people are out and about. And the Texas Tavern is seeing a brisk movement by customers.
”How’s the elevator business?” third-generation owner Matt Bulington asks a regular.
“Up and down, buddy!” replies the operator in a rehearsed joke that still cracks up the cooks.
The banter here is just part of the appeal. The diner is tiny — 10 seats, and right now they’re all blocked off with yellow caution tape — but its crisp red and white paint and the unmistakable smell of its grill practically dominate the larger buildings around it.
Saunders, for example, started coming here back in the '70s but still usually orders the same thing.
“It's either two with, a bowl and a drink,” Saunders said, indicating a preference for burgers and a bowl of chili beans with onions, plus a soda. “Or a Cheesy Western, a bowl and a drink.”
For Saunders, the lack of change provides much of the appeal. The Texas Tavern’s small menu offers up blue-collar classics like chili dogs, small hamburgers, and the Cheesy Western – a hamburger with a scrambled egg and the tavern’s signature relish. Regulars tend to be passionate about their favorites.
“Two hot dogs and a chili beans.”
“The Cheesy Western! No. 1, Texas Tavern!”
The price is right, too. The Cheesy Western is one of the most expensive item on the menu — $2.85. Owner Bullington’s great-grandfather started this joint.
“My great grandfather, Nick Bullington, had been an advance man for the Ringling Brothers circus and the Gentry Dog and Pony Show, and had his own railroad car,” Matt Bullington said. “He traveled all over the country.”
It wasn’t long before he discovered the chile recipe in Texas. And then soon after, he discovered White Castle, an emerging chain restaurant that sold small hamburgers — the first fast food. Bullington decided to make a go of it and opened The Texas Tavern in Roanoke in 1930. The Great Depression was taking hold, but the Norfolk and Western Railway had its headquarters there, which gave him a built-in customer base.
“Times were hard, but it was a really fast-growing city with good economic potential,” Matt Bullington said.
Roanoke has changed dramatically since then. Railroad jobs are mostly gone. Downtown has completely transformed, from office buildings to rental apartments for a new, younger set. Texas Tavern’s competition used to be other diners. Now it sits alongside upscale international cuisine and craft breweries.
That was before the pandemic hit. COVID-19 has turned downtown into what Bullington calls “a ghost town.” It’s pushed the tavern into take-out only, at least for now. And the tavern’s customers are craving constancy.
“It's kind of one of those places people like to come back to, as everything else changes,” Bullington said. “The food stays the same. You walk in and it looks like it did in 1950, or 1970, or 1990.”
Since he took over in 2005, Bullington has added sausage gravy to the menu, and replaced an old cigarette vending machine with a vintage Coke cooler — and that’s about it. That’s the way regulars like it.
So while Roanoke is seeing new growth and an evolving economy, the Texas Tavern is chugging toward its 100th birthday in 2030, doing what it’s always done: selling inexpensive comfort food in a setting that looks pretty much the same as when it opened. In doing so, it’s become a foundational piece of Roanoke culture and cuisine — a link to the past that gives comfort in the present.
“Somebody that didn’t understand the business might think, oh, he should modernize this and open up and create more seats because we only have 10 stools, which — you'd be losing something,” Bullington said. “You'd be missing something.”