Looking for Needful Things

What happens when a couple of east coastal millennials walk into a West Virginia diner (that doubles as an antique store)? The bending of expectations.

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For my wife’s birthday bash, we knew we had to “get away from it all,” and more specifically, get away from Washington, DC, where the constant noise of Trump-ridden news cycles render one a mere empty shell of a human being.

Tired of feeling like shadows of our former selves – my wife exhausted by her job, and myself exhausted by my inability to find one – we decided to visit our closest neighborhood, something far enough to make it feel like a getaway, yet close enough to make it affordable for a single income family. The destination became obvious soon enough: West Virginia.

Now, I’m a foreigner and my wife’s from the Pacific Northwest, so given our limited exposure to the bounties of the East Coast, we didn’t know what exactly to expect. Since we’re proud members of the generation that’s liberal and progressive enough to snark at everything that’s not ironic or artisanal, our informed opinions of West Virginia were limited to reports about the opioid epidemic, the struggling coal industry, and the cute nickname: “Trump country.”

I’m exaggerating, of course, but it’s fair to say that we were going on a real adventure, in the sense that both people and the land itself represented a blank space on our mental maps of America. Excited, and as unbiased as only urban millennials could be, we departed!

Relax and follow instructions: eat and browse. (Photo by Jan Pytalski)

For those who slept through their geography class, let me just say that the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia is really close to Washington. And yet, the proximity of the nation’s capital does nothing to kill, or even taint, the charm of a land that seems like it could be 650, rather than 65, miles away.

This was not one of those journeys that reminds you of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-fueled, gun toting raids across all 50 states. It was more of a mellow, slow-paced ride, designed for young people, who every now and then dream of being retired already. On our way, we managed to see some incredible places, meet some amazing folks, and eat some really delicious food.

After conveniently missing the exit for Harper’s Ferry, which was supposed to be our first stop, we agreed to pull over into whatever “cool looking” town happened to be next. We didn’t know it at the time, but the place that would soon warm our hearts and fill our bellies was just couple miles away. Charles Town, a hamlet boasting a little over 5,000 denizens founded by George Washington’s youngest brother — Charles — soon appeared on the horizon. Classic, recognizable brick townhouses, and old-timey storefronts were more than enough for us to start looking around for a place to sit down. We’re no fancy eaters (not to say that we don’t like to get fancy every once in a while), so we weren’t on the lookout for a fine dining experience.

We wanted an escape from the mundane, hipster curated, all-wood interiors and imported espresso machines coffee-pub-barber-deli. At that point it seemed like the entire economy of Charles Town was based on the antiques trade, and storefront after storefront of antique shops soon turned into a single blur… And yet! Out of nowhere, I had the most bizarre hallucination. I thought I saw a diner counter – red leather swiveling bar chairs, flat top stoves with mounds of potatoes –all inside of an antique store. My wife and I shared a chuckle. Less than a hundred feet farther down the road, I had to call for a emergency stop and go back to check if the dream could actually be reality. What seemed to be a mirage of an oasis to a thirsty traveler in a desert turned out to be an actual spring of food served fast and delicious, alongside great bargains on chairs, sofas, and random tchotchkes.

Charles Town (not to be confused with Charleston, which lies 300 miles to the west) hides a precious gem of one of the most iconic symbols of Americana – an institution near and dear to all, regardless of background or political leanings: a diner (inside an antique store!). As Needful Thing’s slogan on the storefront window proudly announces: EAT & BROWSE – Breakfast, Lunch, Pies, Internet.

The antique store runs rather independently from the diner, its affairs only mildly interfering with those of the respectable cafeteria, while its artifacts slowly encroach on the space occupied by patrons hungry for some burgers and chips. And that’s not a bad thing. If you ever watched the Twin Peaks television series, you might notice certain aspects of the décor that could very well be mementos from the set.

 

The folks behind the counter are welcoming, the service is fast, and it’s a pleasure to see customers enjoy their spread of sandwiches, burgers, and classic sides. The fare is traditional and well executed, so it’s nothing more or less than your favorite, comforting cornucopia of beef, potatoes, and cheeses in all shapes and stages of cooked, fried, and melted. Our Reuben sandwiches were simply delicious. The sauerkraut was sour, the pastrami fresh—all as it should be.

On a personal note, I’d have to say that Needful Things was the first place I visited during my nine years of adventures in the U.S. that served flawlessly-executed onion rings. You might think it’s nothing, but I think it’s an achievement of the highest order. They were crunchy on the outside, and NOT slimy on the inside. The onion stayed within its crust and was pure pleasure to eat.

We missed the pie of the day, but we’ll surely come back for that. They don’t lie on their website when they say that “We feature home made desserts that change as quickly as our customers eat them… so that’s just about everyday!!

It was a very first stop on our five day trip – our first encounter with West Virginia’s hospitality and folklore. While waiting for our meal, I browsed. I walked around and picked up the same little things, artifacts from 10 or 20 years ago that seemed so oddly out of touch with today’s reality. As I would in any other antique store, I allowed them to charm me. There’s no scenario in which I could see myself in need of old VHS tapes, random baseball caps, or cocktail glasses from the 1970s, but it’s weirdly comforting to find yourself in those Alexandrian libraries of our age, where popular culture and everyday industrial design are still represented by physical objects you can touch and take home, instead of downloading them to one of your devices.

Needful Things is a place to stop by. Do what they tell you to do: eat and browse. I’d add: talk to people, ask stupid questions about town, and learn a little more about your neighbors.

Needful Things
218 W Washington St.
Charles Town, WV

 

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