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Abingdon, Virginia’s bounty of enticing places to eat includes everything from a soda shop to fine dining. And in Johnson City, Tennessee, the restaurant scene has come alive with a similarly eclectic verve.
Food is central to the history of Abingdon, Virginia. The town is home to the State Theatre of Virginia, the Barter Theatre, which owes its very name to food. It opened in the midst of the Great Depression, on June 10, 1933, when money was scarce. Theatre-goers, short on cash, were allowed to trade, or barter, garden produce, canned goods and even cured country ham for admission to the theatre. For the equivalent of about 40 cents in bartered goods, anyone could see a show.
A short walk from the Barter is Pop Ellis Soda Shoppe and Grill. On the door are the words Hafa Adai. In Chamorro, the native language of Guam, it’s a greeting—a “Hello” or a “What’s up?”
“Pop” Ellis was Harold Ross Ellis, who died in 2005 but whose name lives on at his son Doug’s business on the town’s Main Street. Hafa Adai may be a foreign phrase, but it’s right at home in this Southwest Virginia setting.
Pop Ellis Soda Shoppe is an American success story. The themes are common in these Appalachian Mountains: patriotism, devotion to family, love of community and service to others.
Harold Ellis graduated from Elizabethton High School in Tennessee in 1942, shortly after America’s entry into World War II.
“And Dad couldn’t get into the Marine Corps fast enough,” says son Doug.
Harold was a witness to history on several fronts in the Pacific Theater of Operations. He was stationed on Guam with the 3rd Marine Division when the United States won the island back from Japan. His outfit was among the third wave of troops on Iwo Jima.
“He saw some of the nastiest fighting of the war,” Doug says. “But he loved Guam. In the 1970s he returned there and fell in love with it all over again. That’s why we have Hafa Adai on our door.”
When Harold opened Ellis Pharmacy, in 1954, banker Fred Buck loaned him money, and in the discussion about a payment plan, all Buck would say was, “I won’t let you starve.”
Ellis Pharmacy eventually ran its course as a drugstore. Two years after Harold’s death, Doug and his mother Yvonne sold the drugstore to Rite-Aid, one of some 14 pharmacies in Abingdon. The last day of operation for the Ellis Pharmacy was May 15, 2007. On May 16, 2008, Pop Ellis Soda Shoppe and Grill opened.
Doug describes the menu as “upper end sandwiches and salads.” When Harold was being treated for lung cancer at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville, Doug would eat Gus Burgers at the White Spot. In developing the menu for Pop Ellis, Doug decided that this University of Virginia student favorite, a cheeseburger with a fried egg on top, would work well in Abingdon, too.
Pop Ellis also serves a hot dog topped with pimento cheese, which is then run under a broiler. “You have to eat it with a knife,” Doug advises.
“People brag about our milkshakes as much as anything on the menu,” Doug adds. “A lot of places use a mix and milkshake ice cream. We don’t. We use premium ice cream, 18 to 20 percent butterfat—and the milkshakes are 20 ounces, at least. We bring you a glass, and you spoon from the cup into the glass. That’s old school.”
The restaurant is filled with items from the Ellis family’s extensive collection of pharmaceutical memorabilia. Visitors come in from all over the world, drawn to Abingdon by the Creeper Trail and the Barter Theatre.
“Most of all,” Doug concludes, “I want them to appreciate the fact that this is a museum honoring old downtown drugstores and a memorial to my dad.”
On the opposite end of Main Street from Pop Ellis is Rain, a restaurant that opened in the fall of 2010. Owner and executive chef Ben Carroll came to Southwest Virginia from Arizona with his family when he was a young child. One of the first things his family did in their new home was to plant a garden. Carroll and his siblings were required to work in that garden, which he describes as “insanely huge,” for at least an hour a day before they were allowed to go play.
“We grew everything: corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, squash, beans,” Carroll remembers. “I learned at a young age to appreciate the incredible flavor of vegetables fresh from the garden and to respect the amount of hard work and diligence it takes to grow and harvest them.”
That respect is evident at Rain, where Carroll serves an heirloom tomato salad with fresh mozzarella, basil, aioli, house-pickled chilies, candied fennel, and microgreens. He has been known to use upwards of 10 heirloom tomato varieties in that one salad.