The State Folklorist’s Notebook is a regular column written by state folklorist Emily Hilliard for Goldenseal magazine. This article appears in the Summer 2019 issue.
Walking in to Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House in Huntington feels like stepping onto a movie set of a 1960s diner. A red neon sign hangs over a long awning extending to the curb, mod pea-green vinyl booths line the walls, and a laminate counter with worn bar stools sits in front of a stainless-steel backsplash so clean you can see your reflection in it. The business, which was founded in 1938 by Jim Tweel and Sally Rahall, has gone through few changes in its 81 years.
“Everything in this restaurant has been here since 1962 or before,” says owner Jimmie Tweel Carder, who took over Jim’s from her parents in 1994. Even the menu has changed little since 1945, when Jim expanded the offerings to include spaghetti made from a recipe given to him by an Italian neighbor.
Employees stick around Jim’s too. “My dad’s manager was here 62 years,” says Jimmie. “He had a waitress that was here 62 years. He had another waitress here 52 years…. There’s a girl upstairs who’s still coming back in—she’s been here over 42 years.”
The grill cooks met working at the restaurant, fell in love, and got married. They still both work there. “I think we’re easy to work for. We try to treat them well, you know. I used to yell a lot, but I don’t yell anymore,” she says, laughing.
Not everything has stayed the same. “We had a major change this year,” Jimmie confides. Last year, when she went to order the white “nurse dress” uniform the waitresses had always worn, she couldn’t find one that fit the specifications—short sleeved, with pockets and a full skirt. “Nobody would make them. Nobody would do it, so we had to decide what we were gonna do. At that point, we had just hired two waiters for the first time, and we liked what they looked like, so we went out and found black pants and a white shirt.” When Jim’s made the uniform change, it made the local paper. In the article, Jimmie says, “We felt like we might attract more people to want to work here without the dress. That too was part of the decision.”
Though otherwise Jim’s seems like a meticulously preserved time capsule, Carder says that the restaurant’s décor and longevity are a result of just taking it one step at a time. “We’ve never been planners for this restaurant. It’s just ‘take it day by day by day.’ To bluntly put it, why get into doing something if we’re gonna close down next year?”
That seems to have been the approach from the beginning when Jim and Sally, whose families originated in Kfeir, Lebanon, first decided to start the business. “As I like to say because I think it’s cute, my future mother said to my future dad, get a job or I’m gone. So he borrowed $1,500 from an uncle and bought this restaurant.”
Community may be another secret to the restaurant’s longevity. “My dad was known as ‘The Ambassador of Huntington’ because everyone wanted to come see Jim’s.” And it wasn’t just locals either. Photos of celebrities who have visited the restaurant—including Muhammad Ali, Soupy Sales, Marcel Marceau, Dagmar, and Dustin Hoffman—adorn every wall. A special display piece—the “million dollar” picture of John F. Kennedy— hangs over the booth where he sat in 1960 when he passed through during his primary campaign.
But the restaurant’s importance to Huntington is what caught the eye of the James Beard Foundation, which awarded Jim’s an “America’s Classic” award this year—the first ever in West Virginia. In the announcement video, chef Sean Brock says the award “celebrates restaurants that anchor communities and make every diner feel like family”—a very fitting description of Jim’s.