Not Almost Heaven

Contrary to what John Denver sang, I didn’t find West Virginia to be “Almost Heaven”.

We left D.C. around noon; I was still full from the cappuccinio I’d had right before, so we figured we would get lunch in Harpers Ferry. That was before a necessary pit stop to relieve the water and coffee (me) and a torrential downpour where we had to stop driving for a while, occurred. I’d only had a bag of Kettle chips for breakfast (not exactly the breakfast of champions), so by the time we got to Harpers Ferry close to 2 p.m. I was “hangry”. I also suffer from hypogyclemia, so getting hungry is not a good thing.

I’d “Yelped” places to eat in Harpers Ferry and as we drove into town, we passed the #1 place- The Rabbit Hole, but there was a line out the door and I needed to eat NOW. As Zeke searched for a parking spot, I spied the Cannonball Deli. It had an empty table and was outside, so I sat down, as Zeke fiddled with the Pay to Park app, which wasn’t the same as the one in Miami, so he had to download it. Then he needed his Apple ID to confirm the purchase, which he’d forgotten, and that led to a whole other rabbit hole.

“Why did you pick this place?” Zeke asked, when he finally sat down.

“It was outside and had an open table,” I answered, crankily.

At this point, my Foodie instincts lost out to just needing to eat. I ordered a Gyro Salad for myself, which I saw a local girl at a nearby table order, and a Gyro Sandwich for Zeke.

“Do you have any beer?” I asked the cute, young waiter with dark, curly hair.

“Unfortunately, no,” he said.

Our food was good enough and, as I went in to use the restroom in the Cannonball Deli, there was an old man with a long white beard and a short white hat sitting there on a stool, by the exit. I assume he was the chef and he looked like he came from the Old Country, so I think the Greek Food we ate was authentic.

Unfortunately, due to COVID, the historic Harpers Ferry park was closed, as were many of the local shops and stores. We did visit a historic Candy Shop where I purchased a couple things, saw the old B & O Railway Station (which is now the closed Visitor’s center) and watched hikers decending into town from the Appalachian Trail.

We tried to get a drink at another restaurant (Almost Heaven), but it was packed, so we gave up and went to check into our B & B, which was built by Robert E. Lee’s father, Harry “Lighthorse” Lee. I’m supposedly related to Robert E. (my Mom’s maiden name is Lee and it’s my middle name) so I thought it would be neat to stay in a place built by my relative, even if it was 241 years ago.

It was a cute B & B, with reclaimed wood paneling, oil paintings and a footed tub- our room was an addition- but it had no T.V. I knew about the lack of T.V., but the phone and internet also didn’t work well, I guess because we were in the woods of West Virginia. We’d passed a recommended restaurant named Hamilton’s coming into town and I tried to email them for reservations for dinner, but the internet didn’t work. I called, but the call dropped, so we ended up just driving and making reservations in person. There was a bar, called The Barn housed in a big red barn, on the property of our B & B, but when we tried to get a before-dinner drink, we discovered it was closed. We drove into downtown Harpers Ferry to take another look around before dinner.

It was close to sunset and we read the historic plaques discussing John Brown’s failed attempt to take over the Federal Amory in 1859. Apparently, Brown saw violence as necessary to defeat slavery, so he led a raid on the Armory, intending to arm slaves with the weapons stored there, in an attempt to lead a slave revolt. Very few slaves, however, joined the revolt and Brown’s men were killed or captured by local militia and the Marines, led by none other than Robert E. Lee. Brown was tried for his actions and hung, but this pivotal incident was responsible for escalating tensions that led to the South’s secession and eventually, the American Civil War.

As we stood on the location called The Point, where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers meet, it was a wild rush of water, wildlife, mountains and trees; it was actually was quite beautiful. Zeke grabbed my hand and walked me across the bridge.

“You’re in Maryland,” he said.

In addition to being where two rivers meet, Harpers Ferry is where three states- Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia- converge as well. I was starting to understand why Thomas Jefferson said of West Virginia that “this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic”, but like those Blue Ridge Mountains we were gazing at, my experience with West Virginia turned out to be an up and down affair.

Since it was almost time for dinner, we set off on our trip to Hamilton’s, which I’d read in the description on the menu as being a “life-long dream” of the husband (chef) and wife (front of house). We’d already perused the menu and I’d decided on the deviled egg trio, on the “Shareables” part of the menu; I wouldn’t be sharing however, because Zeke doesn’t like deviled eggs.

You could tell the restaurant had been decorated with care, with tons of fabric and chandeliers hanging overhead, bistro chairs, wood tables and aqua walls decorated with rustic treasures. I was feeling good about our restaurant choice as we were greeted and seated by the owner at our table.

“Can we see your wine list?” Zeke asked.

“We can’t serve alcohol because we’re located in a Masonic Temple,” the owner said.

“No alcohol? Not even beer?,” I asked, astonished.

“No, we suggest people go get a drink at The Barn after dinner,” she explained.

“The Barn?” This was the bar by our B & B. “It’s closed,” we said.

She shrugged. “It’s Monday? Maybe it is closed.”

I was pissed, disappointed and thirsty for a glass of wine. Resigned to my fate, I said “Fine then, I’ll just have the deviled eggs to start.”

“Oh, the chef (her husband) just told me we’re out of those,” she said “but it’s the only thing we’re out of.”

And, the only thing on the limited menu I wanted to eat. It was rife with salmon- in appetizer, salad and entree form- but I hate salmon, so that was out. I wanted to cry, honestly, which I do realize could be a red flag for needing a glass of wine that bad. Zeke eyed me warily.

“Give us a minute,” he said to our waitress/owner.

“What?” I asked. “Am I being a bitch?”

It wasn’t even like we could leave, as there was no other place in town open for dinner.

You know how sometimes, when you dine out, you feel like the owner of the restaurant “gets you”, when their attitude, menu and decor, completely align with yours? And you feel somehow simpatico, like: “I love this place”, like you’ve found your own personal Cheers? I felt the exact opposite of that at this restaurant. How could you even think to open a Fine Dining Restaurant (which it was aiming to be), without serving wine? And charging $36 for a platter of Charcuterie in West Virginia? Incomprehensible to me and I was just angry as a hornet, which I think is technically the first stage of grieving.

A table nearby, of locals in overalls and similar casual dress, had all ordered the same dish for dinner and it looked good, so I ordered it too. It was the most expensive thing on the menu- a $40 filet mignon with crabmeat, hollandaise sauce, asparagus and lyonnaise potatoes. I glared at this nearby table of apparent heathens, with their red Coke cans scattered around the table. They actually thought this sweet, sugary soda was an acceptable drink to go with their expensive filet mignon.

“I put extra crabmeat on there for you,” the server explained cheerily to their table, as she delivered their entrees.

She most definitely didn’t put extra crabmeat on for me. The meal was actually quite good- the lyonnaise potatoes amazing, the steak and asparagus cooked perfectly and the sauce was tasty, with a kick to it- but the meat needed a pinch of salt and there was none at the table. This is exactly the kind of restaurant where they don’t put salt and pepper on the table, because they think their food is seasoned so perfectly it doesn’t need it. This is a pet peeve of mine of restaurants and I desperately wanted salt, but didn’t want to interact any more with our waitress.

A young couple walked in and sat next to us mid-way through our meal. He asked the waitress for the “drink list” and I had to laugh, albeit bitterly. There are no drinks here buddy- run for your life. The server told him in a whisper, they could get something down the road and drink it at their table, if they “were discreet”. This was not an offer made to us by our waitress.

As we left, I noticed the Masonic symbol embossed in the cornerstone of the building. I looked at it with dismay- “damn you Masons!” We went to 7-11 to pick up a bottle of wine to drink a nightcap, back in our room. After one glass, with no T.V. and no internet, there was nothing left to do but stare at each other or read our books. So we read.

Breakfast the next morning, served in the dining room of our B & B, was very good. We had an egg and spinach bake, some potato hash that was minced with red bell pepper, roasted asparagus, crunchy bacon, a fruit cup and coffee.

Lighthouse Inn Breakfast.

There were two other couples- a young couple and an older couple also dining there. The older lady was talking to the younger lady and she was quite the chatterbox. The younger lady apparently hadn’t researched Harpers Ferry too well, as she had no idea much of it was closed. She also didn’t realize most restaurants in town close on Tuesday (it was Tuesday) and she was staying until Friday.

“There was a really good restaurant we went to eat at,” the old lady said, “called Hamilton’s.”

I almost choked on my coffee and gave Zeke a look. The girl’s boyfriend left in the middle of breakfast. Zeke and I took bets on whether he was suddenly ill or just sick of the old lady’s yapping. Probably the latter. The owner of the B & B wrapped his plate up with Saran Wrap, as the old lady kept talking.

“I grew up near a creek,” she went on, “but now they call it a crick.”

When she finally came up for a breath, I interjected to the young woman, “Hamiliton’s is a nice restaurant, but they don’t serve wine. If that’s important to you.”

I figured she didn’t need any more nasty surprises on her trip. She thanked me for the tip and we stood up to grab our packed suitcases and leave. Maybe I was a little harsh on West Virginia and there was a lot of the state we didn’t see. We picked Harpers Ferry because of its historic significance and the fact that it was close to D.C. but, truthfully, I couldn’t get out of West Virginia fast enough. If you go, maybe BYOB or try to find some moonshine to make it through. Next stop- Maryland.

Life is old there, older than the trees Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze Take me home, country roads to the place I belong

John Denver

Up Next: Easy Yeast Rolls

Published by gleeguilford

Born and raised in Miami, the daughter of a pilot and stay-at-home Mom, I love food in all forms. My great grandfather opened the first Italian restaurant in Miami in the 20's, The Boathouse on the Miami river. I love exploring my heritage and linking food and recipes to personal stories. I've been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love and wrote restaurant reviews and news as the Miami Dining Examiner for three years. I love exploring Miami's latest hot spots, hole in the walls and institutions. I'm always looking for innovative ways to use the plethora of tropical fruits and vegetables South Florida offers, especially from my own garden.

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