Planet Wayside, Hamilton, Virginia
Closed; building demolished
I am sorry to say that one of my first designated Tacky Treasure Places is no more. The quirky establishment known as Planet Wayside closed forever in 2006, and the building was razed. A new building has risen in its place, housing Lowry's Crab Shack. It's sad to lose a place with such character, but at least the replacement is an equally beloved local business.
I first visited Planet Wayside in October 2001, while on forced leave from work due to the anthrax scare on Capitol Hill. I was still shook up from 9/11, and then this had to happen. I needed something to cheer me up, but mainly I had to get away from the city for a while and calm down. Planet Wayside provided a humorous and somewhat surreal break from a world that seemed pretty absurd to me at that point. Thankfully, the laughing cure worked for me again.
On that crisp fall day, I drove into Hamilton and stopped at a health food store because I couldn't find the restaurant, even though it was supposed to be right on business Route 7. There were two ladies in the store who described it to me in this manner:
At that last statement, they both nodded. Back on the road, armed with their description, I found Planet Wayside. This tacky little shed was just as they described. The proprietor was equally eccentric. As I walked in, I was greeted, no, let's just say my presence was acknowledged, by a large man with gray hair wearing a tee shirt that read, "What if the Hokey Pokey really is what it's all about?" After giving me a slight nod, he walked away and I asked, "Is it okay if I seat myself?" He replied over his shoulder, "Sure, no one else is going to."
I sat at the counter, and looked around. Mr. Hokey Pokey (owner Tim O'Neil) came over and handed me a menu. There were also specials on the board: mushroom and spinach quiche, and something called "Whiskers on Kittens soup." I heard another customer ask what that meant, to which Tim deadpanned, "You know those things on the faces of cats," or something to that effect. The customer didn't ask him to elaborate, and no one ordered it while I was present.
I ordered the pork barbecue sandwich with cole slaw and an IPA. My food arrived shortly thereafter: hot, good and freshly made. I heard that there is a smoker behind the restaurant because Tim disappeared periodically to tend it. While eating and listening to "I Could Have Danced All Night" on the stereo system, I checked out the decor, and found it most satisfactorily tacky, from the box of Spotted Owl Helper on the shelf to the series of prints of dogs playing poker.
The counter listed a couple of degrees at one end, but not on the other. That is to say, its top could not be said to occupy a single plane. How they kept things from rolling off it all the time is a mystery to me. Despite the feeling I got that the whole place was ready to tumble down, it had a cozy, natural feel. Planet Wayside is tacky, but it isn't trying to be tacky. It comes by it honestly, something that ranks high in my criteria for a tacky treasure.
The most entertaining decorative element of the place was a cariacature of Madeline Albright on one wall, and on the opposite was a letter from her to the owner. He'd written an article in the Loudoun Times-Mirror about the time she showed up at the Planet Wayside, with a full entourage of Secret Service agents, just because she was in the mood for some barbecue. Shortly after she left the restaurant, Tim noticed she'd left her purse behind. He ran out to catch her before her car left, shouting behind the moving car, with a purse swinging in his hand. The car screeched to a halt, and two agents jumped out with weapons drawn. "Don't shoot! It's not my purse!" he cried. The letter from Albright apologizes for the mishap and promised next time not to be so disruptive or forgetful.
Tim was assisted by his wife Suzanne, who shared his quirky sense of humor. Every question I asked was treated as if it came from an idiot. For example, I said to Suzanne, "Can I ask you about the tee shirts?" as I pointed to the two on display. Her response: "Well, you're looking at them." Eventually, we came around to the truth of the matter, and that was that they did have a tee shirt in my size, and in the color I desired. On the back it read, "I got my brain transplant at Planet Wayside."
By that time, the stereo was playing "Hotel California." My food and the shirt were rung up on a 1912 NCR cash register which Tim pointed out works all the time, even during a power failure.
The last time I visited Planet Wayside was on the first day that it reopened after Suzanne's death. Tim still seemed deeply sad about her death, but happy to see all of his regular customers, who came to welcome him back. And they were glad to see him, too. The restaurant hadn't been open an hour before the local fire department called to order a half a dozen sandwiches.
Update: 2006 -- Tim has reportedly quit the restaurant to work on his Vietnam memoirs, and has turned the running of the restaurant over to his son, Morgan. Despite the fire that destroyed their house, Tim and Morgan managed to save the box of 3x5 cards containing all of Suzanne's recipes. Whiskers on Kittens soup lives on!
Update: 2007 -- Planet Wayside is gone; replaced by Lowry's Crab Shack.
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