Don't worry--be happy.
That's what Dixie Bones, a boxy, brightly lighted restaurant on Occoquan Road, ought to have emblazoned on its walls. From the minute you walk in and grin at the stuffed pig collection above the pie case--"How are y'all?" the hostess asks with real feeling--to the end of your repast, you'll be treated royally.
We'd spent the day visiting a university downstate, wondering how the family will manage with two in college for several years. We didn't want burgers, figuring that child No. 2, like child No. 1, will survive on those at college no matter how hard we try beforehand to instill healthy eating habits.
We knew this restaurant had to be good: At 4:45 p.m. on a Thursday, only two booths were empty.
Every square inch of the paneled room has something to look at, but the overall effect is gaiety, not clutter. A giant papier-mache catfish made by Baltimore artist Donna Rose hangs dead center in the dining room. Beneath it on booth dividers are pig cookie jars and pink flamingo woodcuts. There's a red vintage Coca-Cola machine back near horse saddles outside the restrooms. Plates and bowls in solid bright colors hang on walls.
Dixie Bones has a thoroughly patriotic feel, evident from its decor and its hearty Southern home cooking. If you walk through the door in a grouchy mood, that will change fast. Sink into the green upholstery and enjoy.
Unless, of course, you don't like country music.
It took just six minutes for our server to take our order and bring dinner, piping hot and spilling over the plates: half a rack of ribs ($9.95), the smoked meat pulling cleanly from eight bones; half-inch slices of tender beef ($7.55); and half a plate of slightly pink pork ($6.60).
Each meal included two sides and an amazingly light-tasting sandwich-size bun, which we learned are made nearby just for Dixie Bones. We ordered hand-cut fries, homemade macaroni and cheese, tricolor pasta salad, creamy coleslaw, made-from-scratch baked beans and a house favorite, muddy spuds--mashed potatoes mixed with garlic dressing and cheese and onions.
Is it an Alabama country recipe? "Nah, we just made it up," said Birmingham-born owner Nelson Head. "We had to think of something to do with a large baked potato the next day."
Dixie Bones has been in Woodbridge since January 1996, a mile off I-95. Before that, it was on Capitol Hill for almost five years. "Two or three people who helped open the restaurant still come in from Maryland every day," said Head, an Occoquan resident. He now leaves most of the cooking to Carlos Guevara, "the senior guy in the kitchen," a nine-year Dixie Bones employee.
Meats are smoked four to 14 hours, most overnight, over hickory logs in three stainless-steel, gas-fired pits at the back of the kitchen. Even chickens roast for four hours. "The ribs are my mother's recipe," Head said.
Meats come unadorned, but three color-coded syrup pitchers of sauces are on each table: tomato-based barbecues for beef, chicken or ribs, a spicy vinegar one for pork. Are they hot? The menu helps: "On a scale of one to 10, about 3.5."
You can eat well inexpensively at Dixie Bones. A thick pork sandwich is $3.25, fried catfish $3.95. A half-chicken platter is $6.95. Giant stuffed potatoes are $3.95 to $5.75, the latter crammed with beef or chicken. Side dishes, including field peas, collard greens, steamed cabbage and potato salad, are $1.15 to $1.45. Top price is $17.95 for a rack of ribs. Can't decide? Order the $13.95 three-meat combo platter.
Children's meals are $4.25, including fries and an apple. Choose from a beef, pork, or grilled cheese sandwich or a hot dog.
Mondays are busy, with all-you-can-eat ribs from 5 to 8 p.m., $8.95 for children, $13.95 for adults. Sunday buffet includes barbecue, coleslaw, potato and pasta salad, collard greens, beans and corn bread; $3.95 for children, $7.95 for adults.
Coffee is 95 cents a mug; an imported beer, an unheard-of $2.55; a tall glass of soda, 95 cents.
Carryout business is brisk. It's a good thing, because the place seats 65 and could easily hold double. "Thirty-five to 40 percent of our business is takeout," Head said.
Inspired, perhaps, by all the pig paraphernalia, we ordered two slices of pie to go, coconut cream and apple cobbler, at $2.25 each. Head baker Richard Parrott's crusts were perfect.
The coconut was light, the apple dense. Choices were many: cherry, pecan, chocolate, sweet potato, lemon chess. Head said that in an average November week, 200 pies are sold, more when patrons buy whole pies ($13.95) and pass them off as homemade during the holidays.
* Address: 13440 Occoquan Rd., Woodbridge (at Route 1) 703-492-2205
* Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sundays, noon-8 p.m.
No reservations are taken.
* Credit cards: Accepts Visa, MasterCard, Diners.
* Prices: Sandwiches, less than $4. Sides, $1.15 to $145; fries, $1.95. Stuffed potatoes, $3.95-$5.75. Plates, $6.60-$17.95; most less than $9.95. Sunday buffet, noon-3:30 p.m., $7.95 adults, $3.95 children. Our bill for three meals came to $38.54 with tip.
* Children's menu: For age 12 and under; $4.25 includes fries and an apple.
* Low-fat selections: Stick to the sides.
* Health-conscious: Yes, with very lean meats.
* Atmosphere: Down-home casual, but respect the other diners and leave the tank top at home.
* Downside: None.
* Upside: If you go in grouchy, you'll walk out smiling.
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CAPTION: With its prominent pig motif, the decor of Dixie Bones is intended to lighten moods for fun dining.
CAPTION: In the kitchen, senior manager Carlos Guevara, left, prepares plates of chicken and ribs. Above, barbecue chicken, in front, and ribs are served with a variety of side dishes including baked beans, pasta salad and coleslaw.