washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Virginia

Quirky Restaurant Serves Its Last Meal

Regulars Hope Loudoun Diner Reopens

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page C03

If Tim O'Neil succeeds in selling the Planet Wayside restaurant in tiny Hamilton -- a practically collapsed shack where he has served lunch and dinner for 16 years -- he has pledged to take nothing with him.

Not the shelf full of stuffed animals and toys given to him by customers who traveled from all over the region to slurp his famous soups and munch on his smoked duck and ribs. Not the wind-up ducky and piggy dolls that O'Neil set to fighting on the counter to the delight of regulars. Not the ornate 1912 cash register that can ring up orders no higher than $3.

A coffee shop used to exist at Planet Wayside's location. Before that was a chicken coop; after the coffee shop was a bar. (1930s Photo)

He will not even take the chalkboard on the street outside, which he used to entertain passersby with an ever-changing array of zany phrases. "Honk if you're brain dead" was a message so popular that neighbors begged him to erase it so they could get some peace and quiet.

"I'll let it all go," he said. "When you have to move on, you have to move on."

O'Neil, 60, served his last plate of barbecue last weekend. A For Sale sign has been planted in the weedy yard out front.

There are many restaurants that become neighborhood institutions. Then there is Planet Wayside, a former chicken coop whose ceiling is so low that even moderately tall customers had to stoop. Still, fans of O'Neil's barbecue came to western Loudoun County to cram the tiny building that seats just 28 and crowd the rickety patio out back.

The restaurant has been the heart of Hamilton, but the heart of the restaurant and its owner belonged to Tim's late wife, Suzanne. They started the place together in 1989 and ran it as partners, rising early each day to cook side by side for hours on end. She made the soups and desserts, he smoked the barbecue and hammed it up for the regulars.

But last year, Suzanne became ill and died three months later, at 56, of a disease doctors were not able to diagnose. Tim closed the restaurant for 2 1/2 months, then reopened with help from his 20-year-old son, Morgan.

"The first week back, I cried every day," he said. "You look around and think, 'Suzanne, where are you?' "

Business remained good, but the effort of restarting without his beloved partner left him burned out, he said. He decided to close for the winter and put the restaurant on the market while he spends time writing.

Planet Wayside regulars said its closing means the end of a legend and symbolizes changes in once-rural western Loudoun as suburbanites flood new developments nearby.

Planet Wayside "represents what Loudoun used to be, a smaller, closer-knit community," said Brian Miller, who was 15 when he started working as a busboy at the restaurant. He worked there on and off for 10 years and now teaches history at nearby Harmony Intermediate School. "You see those places dying out, where you have regulars who come in and talk politics, what's going on in the world and their lives."

Blaine Lytle, a Hamilton volunteer firefighter, said he used to eat at Planet Wayside during dinner breaks from the station. It was the kind of place, he said, where if he got a call he could simply run out the door and pay up later.

"I didn't even have to say it. I'd just be gone," he recalled. Usually, Tim or Suzanne would wrap up his food so he could microwave it when he returned.

Aledra Hollenbach, a Hamilton resident, said she loved to see the Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs lined up in the gravel right next to farmers' pickups. "All kinds of people would come here," she said.

Famous customers included actor Robert Duvall and Madeline Albright, who once visited with a full Secret Service detail while she was secretary of state. Regulars all know O'Neil's story about chasing Albright's motorcade after he discovered she had left her purse.

The shack started life as a chicken coop in the 1890s and later was used as a coffee shop and then a dingy bar where farmers would gather each afternoon for 75-cent beers. O'Neil, who was one of the original owners of the District's Booeymonger sandwich shop, spotted an ad for the place in the 1980s and bought it for $15,000. He recalled that when he first moved in, he found a year-old carton of cream in the refrigerator. It took weeks to scrub the grease and grime out of the place.

The Planet Wayside story has been irresistible over the years. The restaurant was the first to be anointed "Crummy But Good" by Washington Post freelance writer Donovan Kelly, a designation that spawned a series of articles and then a book about similar places. O'Neil said he -- and his wife especially -- was upset at first by the "crummy" description, which Kelly defined as "a place that looks so bad from the outside that you would hesitate to take your mother inside, especially if she were wearing her good dress."

"But Good" meant "good menu, good food, relaxing atmosphere, friendly people and reasonable prices," and the O'Neils became friends with Kelly after they saw how good the attention was for business.

Every article has brought in people, he said, even the piece in an electric company newsletter. O'Neil said the restaurant was busy since the first year, sometimes so packed that he'd make customers clear their own plates, fetch food, answer the phone and make change at the register. O'Neil said he can remember many Saturday nights when he had to turn away patrons because he had run out of food.

For Planet Wayside lovers, O'Neil has offered a tantalizing hope of a return. Selling the business may be tough, he acknowledged, given that the Florida man who owns the land and building has said he will not allow it be torn down. If no buyer bites by spring, O'Neil has threatened to reopen.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company