Thursday, August 4, 2016

Review and Reflection: Jim's, Huntington WV

It’s tempting to slide into the booth where President and Mrs. Kennedy once dined and soak in a bit of history. But my kids prefer sitting at the bar and truthfully so do I. From there you see all the action moving in and out of the main kitchen while the line cooks work on burgers behind the bar and the servers fill glass after glass of Coca-Cola.

For several years Jim’s was the stuff of family legend and mythology. The first time I ever set foot in West Virginia was the weekend my husband proposed to me. We had traveled from Georgia for a friend’s wedding and family Fourth of July picnic. For months Derek described the many restaurants of Huntington, West Virginia, but Jim’s was at the top of the list. That visit failed to take me to Jim’s and every visit of the next three years provided the same disappointment. We would drive away from Huntington and Derek would say “I still haven’t gotten you to Jim’s.” I started to the think the place didn’t really exist.

Finally, when our daughter was a year old the family made a pilgrimage to this Huntington institution. It was not what I had expected. The dish Derek had raved about again and again was Jim’s spaghetti sauce. In my mind this translated Jim’s into a kitschy Italian joint with red and white checked table clothes and Chianti bottle candle sticks. I was so very wrong.

Stepping into Jim’s is to join the world of President Kennedy’s era. Jim’s is anything but kitschy. It is an earnest, serious spaghetti and steak house where every moment of a guest’s experience is taken seriously. No attention to detail is spared. As a customer you sit up straighter and put on your best manners, not because the surroundings are intimidating but because you hope to make yourself worthy of this place and all it represents.

Not much in Jim’s has changed in the past thirty years or more. The restaurant is run exactly as Jim did but now by his daughter and grandson. My husband’s grandfather ate almost every lunch during the work week at Jim’s. He can attest to the fact that it is the same as it has always been. Jim’s is the kind of place that helps you understand what our grandparents and parents mean when they lament “Things aren’t what they used to be”.

Jim’s is perfectly designed to respectfully serve its customers. The waitresses (I have never seen a male server at Jim’s) wear 1950s style white starched uniforms with white shoes and a green apron. Their hair is cleanly pulled back from their faces and tightly tied up. They are clean, tidy, and polite. Even at the counter the waitresses pay close attention to their guests, refilling glasses before they ever fully empty without the guest even noticing. They smile with a welcome and friendly word even if they aren’t assigned to you and just happen to be walking by. One of their younger servers during our most recent visit stopped just to chat with my three-year-old about his banana pie and how that was her favorite as well. He felt important and special as she smiled at him and asked him questions.

I have never visited when Jim’s daughter and grandson were not on hand. One of the two of them greets every person who walks in the door. They wear uniforms (of a sort) as well. Jimmie always has on a crisp white jacket and her nephew wears an equally crisp white button-down with a dark necktie. Their dress is as much under scrutiny as anyone else. The two of them watch everything that happens in the restaurant and attend swiftly to any need or issue. On our last visit I watched as Jimmie swiftly but quietly made her way into the kitchen to correct an order she saw was being filled.

As far as the food goes, it is delicious. It also has not changed in decades. Below you’ll find my review of their most notable dishes from their limited menu. But the food is not what I love most about this place. Jim’s is the kind of place that just isn’t done anymore and it’s a shame. It reminds me how formal daily life was, not just formal dinners and Sunday church outings. Our society used to show greater respect for one another. People valued clean lines and proper attire. Men wore hats when they left the house and all women wore them to church.

Now, I’m not about to start ironing all of our clothes. Nor will I give away our yoga pants and gym shorts. But I do greatly appreciate the feeling that comes from enjoying a meal in the tidy and formal fashion of Jim’s. Every need is attended to in a quiet and proper way, allowing you to relax into your meal.

One day the extremely casual nature of our society will go out of fashion. We no longer will tolerate servers who barely stop at our tables and articulate just beyond a grunt to take our orders. We will no longer accept being treated like a third cousin four times removed, someone whose presence in the restaurant feels like a burden at best and an inconvenient nuisance at worst. Instead, we will want to be treated as a guest wherever we choose to dine and will expect places to be run with decorum and efficiency. When that day comes, Jim’s and places like it will be the saviors of the restaurant industry. They will be the ones to set the example because they have never ceased running the place properly with good etiquette, structure, and ritual.

If you want to learn more about Jim’s, I commend to you a simple Google search to call up article after article about the place and about Jim himself. Look for his tradition of giving silver dollars to first-time guests (I always carry with me the one Jim’s widow gave our oldest when she was only a year old) and Mohammed Ali’s presence at Jim's funeral. It is a place and people worth knowing. For most favorite restaurants,we love the ambiance or a certain dish or two, or the people there. Rarely do we love the whole of the place, it’s ethos and essence. I love everything about Jim’s, from the people, to the food, to the appearance, to the inherited family and community memories it contains.

Food Favorites:

SLAW!!! I am so picky about my slaw. I grew up in Georgia and we don’t eat much chili, much less on our hotdogs. Slaw is a staple, whether on a hamburger or hotdog or as a BBQ side or picnic and potluck offering. It is huge for me to tell you that Jim’s has the best slaw on the planet, hands down. It is good by itself, as a side to any of their entrees, or to take home and put on your hotdog. It’s one of the few dishes I cannot completely replicate at home. And I don’t really want to because I like missing it between pilgrimages to Huntington.

Pies. I’m embarrassed to say that it was not until this year that we ever ordered pie at Jim’s. We’ve known how famous their pies are (just ask any local about the anticipation leading up to strawberry pie season) but we usually aren’t hungry for dessert after our meal. This year we went in for an afternoon snack, perfect pie time. It is better than anyone will tell you. Hannah had the Boston cream pie, which was good, but William had the banana pie, which was to die for.

Spaghetti, of course. I made the mistake of ordering the ravioli on my first visit to Jim’s and will never be so foolish again. "Spaghetti" is in the name of the place and Jim's has its own unique flavor. We have a recipe for “Almost Jim’s” spaghetti sauce. It’s close but it’s not Jim’s. Again, this is a taste of Huntington that we miss between visits and love sharing with our kids.

White fish. Everything about Jim’s is unique in some way, and that includes their white fish. I’ve never been served perfectly squared blocks of fried fish before, but that’s exactly how Jim’s serves it up. And it is delicious, especially with their house-made tartar sauce. Seriously. This is the best tartar sauce in the world.

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