Since it was dumped onto its foundation back in 1954, the Frost Diner on Rte. 29 in Warrenton has survived fast food, health food and ethnic food to keep dishing up the creamed ham, real mashed potatoes and red Jell-O that its patrons love.
Fast-food restaurants "are good and fast for people in a hurry," conceded Bob Ward, who runs the diner with his wife Viola. "Me, I prefer to sit down, be waited on and hear china crashing -- as long as it's not mine."
At the Wards' place, the music on the three countertop jukeboxes is country, and so's the ham. Virginia country ham, to be precise, the pride of the Frost Diner.
That country ham is what a famous visitor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, ordered when she stopped by "sometime after Onassis passed away," Bob Ward remembered. "She sat down at that first stool. I was going to have it bronzed."
"Are you sure?" Viola Ward asked. "I think she sat by the Coke machine. It was a Friday afternoon."
"Okay, I stand corrected," Bob Ward said. "I'm getting all those stools bronzed."
Muhammad Ali also made an appearance one day, but he made less of an impression. "He didn't say a word," Bob Ward said. "His bodyguards ordered everything."
Celebrities aside, what keeps the Wards working hard at the diner seven days a week are the regular folks who pass through the doors from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 24 hours a day Friday and Saturday.
"They have a better selection of what you like to eat," said 20-year customer Irene Lumceford, who manages the dry cleaning shop up the road. "And I like the waitresses."
"I like what they have and I like the people," said Luther Payne, 76, over his midmorning coffee. Payne, who's put in more than 1,000 hours doing volunteer work at Fauquier Hospital since 1983, often eats breakfast and lunch at the diner since his wife passed away.
On this particular day, the specials were chicken vegetable soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, Jell-O and coffee or tea for $2.50; a cold plate of chicken salad, coleslaw and potato salad for $2.95; or creamed country ham over biscuits with two vegetables for $2.95. "Vegetables" include anything from lima beans to green salad to cottage cheese to Jell-O.
Sunday's special is Payne's favorite: "That roast beef can't be beat -- you can cut it with a fork."
Aside from the specials, there's a menu with just about everything else you'd expect in the way of diner cuisine. On the front is a picture of a sign -- with a jaunty chef peering over the top -- that stood in front of the diner until a truck knocked it down. "It was upsetting, really," said Bob Ward, his constant smile leaving his face for a minute. On the back of the menu are premeal prayers for Catholics, Jews and Protestants.
During the week, when the Wards' 24-year-old daughter Karen estimates that "85 percent of the customers are locals," the pace is a little easier. On the weekends, particularly when the leaves turn in the fall and the mass exodus to Skyline Drive begins, the diner sees a slightly different kind of clientele. "Sometimes you get someone in a bad mood, but that's because they're cranky and tired from being on the road," Bob Ward said. "Ninety-nine percent are super-fine people."
Ward, 48, started as manager of the diner in 1975 following his retirement from the Army after 21 years. In October 1978, Ward bought the business, although the diner remains the property of Tom Frost Jr., whose father had the metallic boxcar built in New Jersey and transported to Warrenton.
Business is booming. Every week the diner goes through about seven 15-pound hams and six cases of eggs (30 dozen eggs to the case). The Wards also run a take-out chili place next door and a catering service.
There are 10 waitresses at the diner who keep things humming all week long. Waitress Mickey Ellis, 53, who worked at the diner 20 years ago, returned late last year. "The same customers come in now that came in 20 years ago," she said. "A lot of them recognize me before I recognize them."
Betty Matchette, 46, has been there almost 12 years. A few years back, she took some time off to travel, but jumped at the chance to come back to the diner when Ward asked her. "In the fall, you get people going to Florida, and in the spring they come back," Matchette said.
The diner has its contingent of older customers who often eat at least two meals a day there, and the waitresses get to know them pretty well. "They can't have the things they had 10 years ago," Matchette said. "Like the country ham is real salty, and if they can't have salt, that's hard to tell them."
Most everyone seems to like the diner just as much for the people as for the food. "I get tired of those fast-food places," said Robert Moser, 72, eating a bowl of soup and reading the sports section. "Everybody's in a hurry today."
Wilbur Bailey, 76, has been eating at the diner since it opened. "On a budget you've got to eat lightly," he said, counting out his change. But he also enjoys chatting with the waitresses. "You have to keep them happy," he said, laughing.
"We can carry on a lot of conversation here," said 20-year customer Dan Walters, eating lunch with his son Billy -- who's been eating at the diner "since he was big enough to sit at the counter" -- and his coworker Clifford Clate, who started eating at the diner 15 years ago. The three claim not to have a favorite waitress: "We bug 'em all," Clate said.
John and Lisa Kemper, a young couple with a 2-year-old son and another child on the way, come to the diner because, John Kemper said, "I know Bob and most of them in here. The food's fine, you don't have to wait, it's there, it's hot."
"It's not fast food," added Lisa Kemper. "It's home food."