American Breakfast Town of Vienna

Dive At Sunrise

The last time I had cream chipped beef was on a Friday morning my dad made breakfast for my little brother and I. We were both in  elementary school at the time, and were swinging our feet as we sat in the white plastic chairs of our old kitchen. Something I loved to do when my feet hadn’t quite touched the ground yet.

It was in our first house. The house my brother and I grew up in that had a sticky old fridge with brown, wooden handles, and a wobbly wooden table that occupied half our kitchen. I remember that kitchen very well, including the old wooden cabinets, the way my feet stuck to the old brown tiles with every step, and even the dirty old stoves, riddled with grease and stains – but it was always my favorite place in the entire house. The piles of old newspaper, and unsteady racks of spices and canned soup are all still very vivid images in my mind, because I loved being in that kitchen. I must have stood up on my chair and banged my head on an open cabinet, or accidentally knocked over that uneven rack of spices a dozen times, but it was still my favorite place in the entire house. It was where everyone came and sat together in that cramped space to eat, and it would eventually be my imaginarium in which I turned every old paper packet, can, and box of food in the abyss of those cabinets into made up meals of experimentation for my baby brother to ‘taste test’.

On a week day, breakfast normally meant cardboard pop tarts, or bowls of bland fiber-based cereal, but on Fridays – my dad would wake up a little earlier to cook up something he bought from Giant the night before.

{ Western omelette & home fries }

My dad is a simple man who never really dabbled with the ‘art of cooking’, and can easily survive a week with a carton of store-brand ice cream, an old toaster, and a loaf of bread – so Friday mornings were especially sweet for my brother and I. He’d toast a pair of soft, buttery biscuits, and smother them with a ladle of warm, cream chipped beef that covered the entire plate. A mound of thick cream with flakes of thin, chipped sheets of salted beef, and two buttery sponges soaking it all up from underneath. It made my brother and I almost as excited as we normally would be on Christmas morning, and it’s a little tradition I know I’ll continue when I have my own kids one day.

All of these memories, everything from that battered, yet homey little kitchen I love and miss so much to all the Friday morning breakfasts my brother and I looked forward to when we were little, came flooding back to me when I met up with a friend at one of Vienna’s oldest dives on Maple Avenue one morning.

{ Cream chipped beef with toast & home fries }

I visited the Vienna Inn a year ago for the very first time, and couldn’t believe I’d lived in the area for so long and hadn’t known about their chili dogs and cheese fries. The first thing I noticed, walking in, was the atmosphere. With the wooden booths, the battered tables, and the piles of newspapers by the entrance – it was like I was back in my old kitchen again, and I remember thinking that I couldn’t wait to take my dad here for breakfast one day.

{ Hot cakes & Apple Juice }

Normally, when I order a ham and cheese omelette, or a carton full of chili cheese fries anywhere else (maybe a diner chain, or fast food joint), I expect something underseasoned, and greasy. But everything at Vienna Inn is surprisingly light, well seasoned, and comes in a generous portion that makes your bill almost feel like a steal when you realize just about every thing on the menu is under five bucks.

{ Grits }

Two of my favorite breakfast foods are also two that are usually not on the menu, and aren’t cooked very well. This includes grits. So whenever I visit a new breakfast diner, I always judge them by the way they cook their grits. Some will just empty a packet of grains into a bowl, and microwave it with a few tablespoons of water – but then there are the ones who take their time to boil, and slowly simmer it in a pot of water, butter, and cheese. The final product will taste like thick, buttery pudding with little buds of poppy-seed-sized grains of rice. Grits has a bad reputation, because diners normally microwave it for a few minutes so that it comes out tasting like crunchy, uncooked popcorn kernels in hot water. The perfectly cooked grits at the Vienna Inn was the cherry on top for me.

{ A sweet reminder at the cash register }

One of my (many) favorite things about the Vienna Inn, is the little place mats that people will leave notes and pictures on, that are hung all around the restaurant. Every time I visit, I see a new picture, and a new quote that leaves me smiling on my way out. The one above is my favorite so far. 🙂

What I realized at the Vienna Inn, and what I learned from my dad over the years is simply this – food doesn’t have to be dressed up a certain way to be enjoyed, or taste good – just as love doesn’t have to look a certain way to be wonderful. I didn’t love Friday cream chipped beef breakfasts, because it tasted good – I loved it more, because it came from my dad’s heart. I loved that once a week, he woke up a little earlier, and put on his barely-used cooking gloves to make my brother and I a meal that he’d normally never do for anyone else, just because he loved us that much.

When you step into Vienna Inn, you’ll find that heart is not only written in words and drawn in photos around their old walls, but also served in simple paper cartons, and plane, unembellished plates. It’s refreshing to know that sometimes the best food isn’t found in the fanciest restaurant, or served in the most expensive dishes – but in a soulful dive bar around the corner, just as knowing the strongest love isn’t always found in some extravagant fairy tale – but can be felt in discovering the joy of simply appreciating love that has been with you all along.

If you’re reading this, I love you dad. 🙂

Happy Early Father’s Day!

Vienna Inn
120 Maple Ave E
Vienna, VA 22180

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