Rarely do string beans live in a man's mind for four years. But when the beans belong to S&W Cafeteria, and the mind to 86-year-old Joseph Seay, the memory lingers fondly.
"They were always so well-cooked and tasty," said Seay yesterday, of S&W's finest. "I thought about them all the time since the old cafeteria closed, hoping I'd have another chance to eat them. And tomorrow, I guess I will."
So will fans of S&W spoonbread, devotees of S&W meat loaf -- and anyone who likes the idea of a hot, four-course meal for only $2.75. Four years after it was evicted by the Seven Corners Shopping Center because its clientele was not "youth-oriented" enough, the S&W chain will open a new $650,000 cafeteria at 11 a.m. today in a small shopping center about a mile from Seven Corners, at 155 Hillwood Ave., near downtown Falls Church.
It will not just be a cafeteria that reopens -- it will be a way of life.
At S&W's old location, where the North Carolina-based chain operated for 20 years, more than 1,000 Northern Virginians 65 and older ate lunch and dinner every day. "But they also socialized there, commiserated there, caught up on grandchildren, births and deaths there," said Ray Renfrow, the manager at both the old cafeteria and the new.
"To many of them, it was home."
S&W president John Sherrill said he expects about 30 percent of his customers at the new cafeteria to be neighborhood residents 65 and older, just as they were during the years S&W operated at Seven Corners. Yesterday, many elderly S&W veterans were so enthused about the reappearance of the cafeteria that they kept peeking in on a fried chicken-and-cookies open house the chain threw for Falls Church civic officials and business leaders.
"I wish they were serving today," said Leslie Michaelson, 81, of Arlington, a Seven Corners fixture who said she planned to eat dinner at the new cafeteria "as many nights as I can."
The new S&W arrives none too soon for the disenfranchised elderly customers of the old one. Several regulars said they had gotten so desperate for S&W's cheap and plentiful cuisine that they would car-pool once a week to the only other S&W in the Washington area, at Alexandria's Landmark Shopping Center.
Others on fixed incomes said yesterday they had even taken to eating over the past four years at the one place they swore they would never enter -- a McDonald's. "And I never found any string beans there," said Joseph Seay.
The charm of the old S&W lay as much in fellowship as in food, veterans say, and they look forward to more of the same at the new, pale yellow, 400-seat, 13,000-square-foot facility, where a portrait of Alexander Hamilton hangs in the lobby.
"If it's not too much to say that a cafeteria had meaning, then I say it," said La Rue Van Meter, Falls Church's former town attorney and a former S&W lunchtime regular.
"Every town needs a place like this, where you can walk in and expect to find people you know. . . The old place had a club-like aspect to it. You could come in and see people you wanted and needed to see, for business or for pleasure. It's been terrible without it."
Adding to the frustration was the unexpectadly long time it took the new S&W to become ready to open. Although S&W officials obtained a 25-year lease from shopping center owner Lamar Newcomb early in 1978, delays in obtaining restaurant supplies kept pushing the reopening date "back and back," Newcomb said. "There were times we wondered if we'd ever make it," said cafeteria manager Renfrow.