This isn't your typical restaurant.
To begin with, Rick and Sue Young have been operating it for nearly 40 years ... which is an eternity, when you consider that most restaurants don't survive their first year.
Of course, that lifespan barely constitutes adolescence at the Half Way House, a 200-year-old landmark on Jefferson Davis Highway in Chesterfield County. Here, classic American fare – from a detached log-cabin kitchen – is seasoned with loads of ambience, a pinch of technology and a side of local lore.
"The historic nature of the restaurant gives us an edge," Rick Young said.
The Half Way House – so named for its spot midway between Richmond and Petersburg – is a 2½-story, mostly clapboard building with an English basement. Legend has it that the structure dates to 1760, and that it played host to Revolution-era notables such as George Washington, Patrick Henry and the Marquis de Lafayette.
That guest list might be in doubt, but there's no question that the restaurant has stood the test of time, even if it hasn't stood in the same spot.
The Youngs have owned and operated the Half Way House since 1982. A few years after they bought the property, architects from Colonial Williamsburg surveyed the structure and determined that it had been disassembled and relocated.
"Originally the building was located somewhere else, probably north of here," Young said. "That finally gave them some answers to the mystery of how the building could have been built in 1760 and then been here, because it wouldn’t have been here in 1760."
Colonial-era laws required "ordinaries" – or inns or taverns – to be located near a primary travel point, such as a ferry crossing. Until about 1820, travelers going from Richmond to Petersburg would have stayed on the Henrico County side of the James River until reaching a point in Varina. Then they would have crossed to Chesterfield on a ferry.
So the Half Way House's earlier site was most likely about 2 miles north of its present location, around Falling Creek and just below the southern end of present-day Chippenham Parkway, Young said.
Back then, the trip between Richmond and Petersburg would have taken a whopping 4½ to 5 hours. To shorten that, construction began about 1816 on the 20-mile Manchester and Petersburg Turnpike, the forerunner of U.S. Route 1.
One architectural historian estimates that the current Half Way House structure was erected around 1820 by a large landowner, Capt. William Hatcher, who was a shareholder in the company that built the turnpike. His descendants held title to the property until the late 19th century, and his wife came from a Chesterfield family that may well have operated an earlier version of the Half Way House.
"All the family history that refers to the old tavern and refers to 1760 and all the people who came here – that came from the family history that the Hatchers had passed down," Young said. "We don’t have any first-hand information about that kind of stuff."
During the Civil War, the Half Way House served as headquarters for Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler in 1864 during the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff. A Virginia Department of Historic Resources roadside sign outside the restaurant documents the significance.
After the war, Hatcher kin continued to operate the Half Way House as an inn. But by the early 1930s, the property had fallen into disrepair.
It was purchased by C. Brydon Tennant, an attorney and executive with the Richmond News Leader, who restored the building for use as a museum. Tennant died in late 1940, but his widow found buyers within a few years.
Fred Bender, a restaurant equipment executive, and wife Dorothy had recently moved to Richmond from Chicago and came across the Half Way House. They were interested in the caretaker’s cottage on the site, but the attorney handling Tennant's estate suggested they buy the whole property.
"We actually were looking for a place to live," Dorothy Bender told The News Leader in 1980. "We were completely fascinated with the building. It wasn't until after we bought it that we realized there was no plumbing."
The Benders intended to follow through with Tennant's vision of a museum, but World War II changed those plans. Switching gears, the couple opened the Half Way House as a restaurant to cater to officers at nearby Fort Lee and what is now Defense Supply Center Richmond.
After the war, business picked up, and the Benders operated the restaurant until selling it to the Youngs in 1982.
The scenery might be changing, as evidenced by large apartment complexes being developed nearby. But as with its menu of from-scratch classics – filet mignon, Chesapeake crab cakes and rack of lamb, to name a few – there’s a certain consistency to the Half Way House.
Like the Youngs, the Benders operated it for about 40 years. Their maitre d’, James M. Burton, worked there for more than 30 years, overlapping with both sets of owners. Raymond Allen, who had been a football star at L.C. Bird High School, was hired as chef about 30 years ago and still runs the kitchen.
The Youngs were experienced in the business when they acquired the Half Way House. Rick was 32, but he had managed his first restaurant at age 21 and had managed banquet and catering services for a major hotel chain. He and Sue knew what they were getting into.
“Our philosophy was, even though the restaurant closed after the Civil War and didn’t open up again until World War II, we sort of function as though it never had ever closed," Young said. "We’re doing what it was built to do. We’re operating as if it had just evolved continually throughout that period of time, which is why we’re not doing costumed re-enactments or anything of that nature."
The restaurant area in the basement seats only 40 guests, so the business relies heavily on banquets and parties held on the first floor.
"The scale of it means it has to be upscale, because we can’t survive on small volume at low cost," he said. "We can’t compete on dollars, so we have to provide a unique experience with great food."
Engagements, anniversaries, graduations and the like are common milestones that patrons celebrate at the Half Way House, so "it’s important for us to make that occasion as memorable as possible."
Midlothian residents Taminator Harrison and husband Alan visited the Half Way House in April 2018 for a special occasion with Alan’s parents. Like most patrons who are not in large groups, the Harrisons were seated in the main dining room in the English basement. Two-century-old exposed brick walls, plus fires blazing away in hearths at each end of the room, provide an aura of early American dining.
"The atmosphere was special," Harrison said. "It was decidedly different. Everything was beautifully plated. It was straight out of a magazine."
Afterward, the family wandered through the building and surroundings. She photographed exposed beams in one of the first-floor banquet rooms, wooden steps worn down by decades of use, and a lush sycamore that towers over the outbuilding that houses the kitchen.
Fascinated by its history, "we were really looking at the bones of the place," Harrison said. She later posted many of the photos online.
Indeed, positive words online via Yelp or other platforms has broadened the Half Way House's reach. "Before, it had to be word of mouth," said Young, adding that construction of state Route 288 nearby also deepened the customer base from the Richmond and Tri-Cities areas.
Of course, online reviews can be a double-edged sword. "Any review that’s negative, price is always mentioned in there," he said. (Half Way House prices are not designed for the fast-food crowd.)
Internally, technology has helped as well.
Cameras in the kitchen let the Youngs monitor meal preparation from their cellphones, wherever they might be.
With parties and banquets being held on the first floor ... and public dining in the English basement dining room ... and with the kitchen being in another building, "it’s a requirement for us to communicate well," Young said. "In any restaurant, that's where the breakdown occurs – between the dining room and the kitchen. That's where 90 percent of the problems occur.”
Of course, the Youngs try to mask any 21st-century devices in their 18th-century setting, though sometimes comfort wins out.
A couple of small, rounded Honeywell heating and air-conditioning units are discreetly embedded into the walls of the dining room.
"I need to disguise it a little better," Young said with a laugh. But the units are quiet and don't require ductwork.
"The fireplace provides a lot of heat for us also, but it’s being able to provide the air conditioning – and not have to make noise – that's really wonderful," he said.
Even providing an audible mood requires blending 17th-century music with modern technology.
"We’ve got the latest sound system in here. It's all digital," Young said. "But we only play music that was written before the restaurant was built.
"And it’s kind of funny, because a man was sitting over there a few years ago, and he said, 'Young man, I like everything about this restaurant. I like the food, I like the ambience, I like the people, I like the tables, I like everything but that Russian music.' "
Young laughed as he recounted the story.
"That’s the only complaint I’ve had in 38 years about the music," he said, "and it’s not Russian!"