For the third stop on our August vacation, we stopped into a throwback little place in the middle of nowhere for a chili bun and some ice cream.
The last year has not been very kind to old restaurants in Lee and Scott Counties, Virginia. As we mentioned in the previous chapter, Pennington Gap’s Patio Drive-In shuttered a few months ago. Another recent casualty is the Red Stone Drive-In, which is on the access road from US-421 to Natural Tunnel State Park. Hopefully, somebody will reopen these old places one day.
So one of the few old independent restaurants left in these parts is the Hob-Nob, which Bent Strong and his wife Elgia opened in 1954. It’s a couple of miles west of Gate City, on an old highway that was bypassed by the newer stretch of US-421, so it’s the sort of place that you have to know to look for, but plenty of locals know to do just that. The restaurant was expanded from a teeny little shack to a room with enough space for about fifty people, and a salad bar, in the 1970s, transforming from a canopied place that mainly did curb service into a general family restaurant.
The Strongs’ grandson, Ross Jenkins, has owned the Hob-Nob for the last thirty years. It stepped out of family hands for a little while; his parents had leased it to one of their employees, but they sold it back to him. We were impressed by the crowd. Not many places can boast of being half-full at four in the afternoon, and I had to stubbornly and selfishly wait for people to leave to get an uncluttered photo of the interior.
By chance, the current issue of Garden & Gun had a short article about chili buns that I read online a couple of days before our trip. Many of the older drive-ins in southwestern Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and West Virginia, not to mention the Pal’s Sudden Service chain, offer these silly treats. Yes, they’re exactly what they sound like: a chili dog without a dog. And yet they’re delicious. At the Hob-Nob, they add mayo, and it makes a perfect and tasty snack.
Our son had an ice cream cone that was far, far larger than any five year-old has ever successfully eaten without it melting all over the table, and Marie had a sundae. It’s soft serve ice cream with flavored syrups, but these aren’t your typical cheap syrups. Our server described the raspberry syrup as “more like jam,” and it was really thick, with lots of fruit in it. Me, I’m more likely to want to have chili buns or barbecue for a snack, but I’m glad such good treats are available here for everybody who likes them!
The Hob-Nob is a wonderful example of an old, independent, family-owned restaurant with a unique regional treat on the menu. Our service was attentive, the prices were nice, and the food was very good. I don’t honestly foresee us being in the area again anytime soon, but if you’re traveling that way or visiting Natural Tunnel State Park, you should definitely think about stopping by!
2256 Daniel Boone Rd
Gate City, VA 24251
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