Sunday, January 20, 2008

"75 Years of A Bowl With'" - by Duncan Adams

Roanoke Times, The (VA)-February 12, 2005
Author: Duncan Adams 981-3324

The two men tottered, swaying astride stools, protesting their

The suffer-no-fools Texas Tavern countermen glared and shook
their heads with world weariness. They had nailed the chili-sated,
inebriated cheats trying to ease out the tiny eatery's door without paying.

Countermen Ed Gill, Joe Russell and Dewey Stallard had heard the
same lame late-night tale hundreds of times: One guy sputtering he was
danged sure his buddy had paid and his buddy claiming the same. Gill,
Russell and Stallard weren't buying. The two customers soon were.

If all the world's a stage, the Texas Tavern is intimate,
concentrated theater. And its 13-by-20-foot eating area has been a venue for
human drama for 75 years.

You will find here the mewling infant, the schoolboy, the
stripper and the judge. You'll meet the toothless man who breaks from his
tow-truck duty one snowy night to gum a steaming bowl of chili. You'll
see a sullen youth with a hoop in each earlobe dining one stool away from
a smartly dressed, gray-haired lady in her 80s.

Issac Newton "Nick" Bullington, founder of the Texas Tavern,
knew theater. He ran hippodromes and vaudeville shows. He owned a circus
in Argentina. He traveled in a private rail car for Ringling Bros. and
Barnum & Bailey Circus as an advance man.

Bullington thought this Big Lick railroad town showed promise
in the midst of the Great Depression. He opened the Texas Tavern on
Church Avenue in downtown Roanoke on Friday, Feb. 13, 1930.

Little has changed there in 75 years. And that changelessness
is one key to the restaurant's appeal. The hollow, steel foot railing,
like most of the fixtures, is original. The surface is worn away in
several spots from the millions of soles briefly propped up.

On the recent day he turned 85, Emmett Greeley stopped for
lunch. He ate a "bowl with" and "two with" and drank a glass of water. He
said his belly protests if he drinks a carbonated soda.

Greeley still recalls Nick Bullington behind the counter. "He
always wore a white shirt and a tie and usually a big black vest and an
apron. He usually had a big gold pocket watch on a chain."

Nick Bullington died in 1942. But the Bullington family still
owns and runs the place. Greeley finds comfort in the continuity of
ownership, aesthetics and fare. He said he visited the tavern as a boy soon
after it opened in 1930.

"It's just about like it was then. It don't change. Everything
else in Roanoke, when it gets about 20 years old, they want to tear it
down," he said.

If you asked 1,000 regulars, "10 at a time," what makes the
Texas Tavern unique, they would cite good, inexpensive food swiftly
served. They would celebrate the steadfast sameness. They would describe the
eatery as a melting pot, where executives in three-piece suits dine
alongside people who live on the streets.

Nearly everyone who has eaten there more than a time or two can
tell a Texas Tavern tale.

On a recent Saturday night, Stephanie Langford and a group of
boisterous but polite students from Roanoke College arrived to eat.

"My first experience here was memorable," Langford said,
laughing. "Everybody in here was saying, 'Take off your shirt!' because I
wanted a [Texas Tavern] hat. I was a Texas Tavern virgin until then."

Years ago, the story goes, a counterman coaxed a dance from an
out-of-work but shapely stripper in exchange for a cheesy western.

Gill and the students swapped one-liners. He is the philosopher
counterman, stirred to action as much by a buttermilk order as by
apparent empathy for the human condition.

"I go out there, and if the mood needs lightening, I go in with
a joke. I see my main job is to bring a smile to people's faces. It's
the deeper needs of the human soul. They come in here for

David Woods said he is a homeless alcoholic who stays when he
can at the Roanoke Rescue Mission. On a cold Saturday night in January,
wearing two stocking caps, two scarves and a heavy coat, Woods stopped
at the tavern. He said he'd walked a long way that night to visit the
grave of his mother, who died in September.

"I helped somebody change a tire and I got enough money to come
to the Texas Tavern," Woods said. "I like the chili here. They are
good people to talk to."

The Texas Tavern and alcohol have an interesting relationship.
Revelers frequently arrive drunk for a late-night, hangover-antidote
meal. As long as they don't curse too loudly or rumble or spray the
countermen with mustard, they're welcome.

And, especially in decades past, the countermen themselves have
been known to take a drink, a binge, a bender.

In those days, Jim Bullington, Nick's grandson, relied some
days on a jail work-release program to staff the restaurant. More than
once, he persuaded hard-core alcoholic employees to enter detox - scouring
downtown to find them after they didn't show up for work for long

Once or twice he found them near death, curled in a fetal
position in a filthy bed at the Hotel Earle or slumped on benches in Elmwood

One man named Henry said he'd let Jim drive him to rehab if
he'd buy Henry a quart of rotgut for the trip. Henry killed the wine on
the way. The wine eventually killed Henry, who froze to death in an alley
after being turned away by a shelter, Jim Bullington said. He remains
angry at the shelter. "I haven't given them a damn nickel since.

"When Henry was sober and working, he was probably one of the
best who ever worked here. I'd have taken a bullet for Henry, and he'd
have taken a bullet for me.

"I never came out on the short end of the stick for helping one
of these guys."

Loyal customers have tales about the countermen. Imagine, in
turn, what the countermen have witnessed. Legends like the late Paul
Starkey, the late Joe Farmer and Dan Siler, who still works part time.
Longtime employees like Timmy Goff.

Counterman Russell once broke up a domestic duel at the counter
during which chili and mustard were the weapons of choice. Wistfully,
Stallard still talks about "the woman who looked just like Ingrid
Bergman, and with a perfect set."

Mark Tenney was grill man several years ago on the night the
stickup occurred. Matt Bullington, great-grandson of the founder and the
tavern's new president, provided details.

An addled-looking woman came in and stood near Tenney. She
said, "I want $100." Tenney ignored her. She added, "I have a weapon."
Tenney calmly flipped burgers and ladled chili. After a pause, the woman
pulled out a .38 and pointed it at Tenney.

Meanwhile, customers arrived, eased past the stickup artist,
took stools, placed orders, ate. Everyone ignored the would-be robber.
This was, after all, the Texas Tavern.

Matt Bullington recalled, "This went on for probably three or
four minutes. Finally, she says, 'Are you going to give me the money or
not? And Tenney says, 'Nah.' "


Anniversary celebration

Today's schedule

The Texas Tavern celebrates its 75th anniversary a day early,
and politicians bearing proclamations will briefly share the
countermen's view. The public is welcome, but the restaurant is small and space
will be limited during the ceremony, when food will not be served.

The Texas Tavern opened in February 1930, four generations of
the Bullington family and scores of characters have worked behind the
restaurant's counter. Today, the eatery on Church Avenue in downtown
Roanoke celebrates its 75th anniversary a day early and politicians bearing
proclamations will briefly share the countermen's view. The public is
welcome, but the restaurant is small and space will be limited during
the ceremony, when food will not be served.

-10:50 a.m. Dignitaries arrive.

-11 a.m. Mayor Nelson Harris opens ceremonies.

-Special prices Hot dogs, hamburgers and chili will be 75 cents
from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

News researcher Belinda Harris contributed to this report.

Photo - 1 Photos by SETH M. GITNER l The Roanoke

Times The Texas Tavern's 13-by-20-foot eating area has been a

for human drama for 75 years. Photo - 2 Photos by SETH M.

The Roanoke Times Customers young and old enjoy a visit to the

Texas Tavern. Above, Dewey Stallard places a to go order in a bag

several customers wait for their order on a recent Friday night.

restaurant seats only 10 at a time yet many people wait for

Below, Joe Russell works the counter as he serves three women.

Photo-3 Owner Jim Bullington will formally retire today and will

hand the keys to the business to his son, Matt. Chart-Timeline.

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