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The Old Chickahominy House is celebrating 60 years of serving up southern favorites.
Started in 1955 as an antique shop that also served food, the original location was on Route 5 along the Chickahominy River, from which the restaurant derives its name.
The original owner Melinda Cowles Barbour, from whom the restaurant’s signature menu item “Miss Melinda’s Special” gets its name, began making little tarts and offering them to her customers in the early days of the store. Before long the food became just as big a draw as the antiques.
After a robbery in 1962, the combination restaurant and gift shop moved to its current location on Jamestown Road.
Though the building looks as if it may date back to Colonial times, it was built new in 1962 using 200-year-old materials to give the establishment an older feel. Some of the paneling even came from Carter’s Grove, a well-known nearby plantation.
The current owner, Maxine Williams, came on board in 1969 when she married Barbour’s son. Though the marriage did not last, Williams agreed to continue running the business when her former mother-in-law retired to Florida.
During the early years of Williams’ ownership the restaurant became something of a local hot spot.
“It was a little small town back then,” Williams said. “There were only about five restaurants.”
A number of celebrities, including Dustin Hoffman, Shirley MacLaine and Goldie Hawn, stopped by while passing through the area.
The Old Chickahominy House also spawned a celebrity of its own: Mr. Biscuit, the resident cat.
“We’ve always had a cat,” Williams said. “Mr. Biscuit wasn’t the first, but he was probably the most famous. He had a book written about him and he even appeared on TV.”
The next several decades saw the restaurant continuing to solidify its reputation as something of a hidden gem, largely frequented by locals rather than tourists.
“Our customers are 90 percent locals,” Williams said. “Especially now that Jamestown Road isn’t the main thoroughfare like it used to be.”
The gift shop portion of the store continued to expand and change over the years, but the menu stayed largely the same. Even today it is nearly identical to what it was in the 1960s.
“We’ve added the hamburger, grilled cheese for the kids, but other than that it’s hardly changed at all,” Williams said.
The endurance of the original menu items, which include Virginia ham biscuits, Brunswick stew, chicken and dumplings and a variety of pies, is part of what makes the restaurant so unique, Williams said.
Though guests may come for a taste of authentic Virginia fair, Williams said she believes they keep returning because of the excellent service they receive.
“Of course we have good food, but 90 percent of our success is because of our staff,” Williams said. “We maintain the same employees – some of them have been here for 30 years. They get to know multiple generations of a family in that time. It’s like the bar in Cheers, everybody knows your name.”
Williams can name several current patrons who are fourth-generation customers, and cites the “how are you, how’s your mother” mentality as a source of the establishment’s charm.
While many of the customers have remained constant throughout the years, the town itself has changed significantly.
“It’s just so much bigger and more spread out,” Williams said. “I think Colonial Williamsburg is not really the focus anymore the way it used to be. Even locals used to go downtown to shop, but now there are many more options, like the [Premium] Outlets.”
As locals have changed their shopping preferences, Chickahominy House has changed what it stocks in its gift shop,
shifting away from antiques to more boutique items like scarves and jewelry.
“It used to be that people would come in to eat and they might buy something, but now we’re seeing more people come in just to shop than ever before,” Williams said.
In keeping with this trend, Williams and her staff are looking toward expanding the gift shop, which already occupies half of the first floor and almost the entire second floor.
Beyond that possible expansion, Williams does not expect much to change any time soon.
“What we’re doing so far is working, we’re still going strong after 60 years,” Williams said. “Outside of the historic area, there’s no other place with this much atmosphere.”