Return to story
WHENEVER I went to the Holy City--the sobriquet for Richmond irks Mrs. Akers because (1) she is from Norfolk, a municipal arch-rival, and (2) as a serious Catholic she accords Rome a monopoly on that title--I was liable to stop by a Bill's Barbecue for lunch or breakfast. Several Bill's served the Richmond area, and any of them, up until the last three closed on Sunday, reliably satisfied the cravings they created. As the Bill's logo, featuring two grinning biped pigs in waistcoats, confidently asserted, "A trial makes a customer."
The menu at Bill's was not exactly California cuisine. The barbecue--pork or beef, pulled or minced, with or without slaw--filled buns that looked lonely if not parked beside little baskets of French fries or onion rings. A cup of Bill's signature limeade large enough to douse a campfire always seemed an apt accompaniment to this bait, and what would lunch at Bill's be without a luxuriant slice of fresh-made pie--chocolate, strawberry, and coconut cream being your correspondent's co-favorites.
Breakfast, including hot cakes to invade the Low Countries for, was of the same ilk. (Have you noticed how few restaurants make really memorable, worth-five-minutes-of-dedicated-conversation hot cakes? They're almost as rare as good preaching.) There is low-calorie food, there is food that puts on pounds, and there is food that instead of eating you might as well tape to your waistline because that is where, with no discernible decrease in bulk, it is going to go. Bill's served the latter.
Bill's had a long life. The first store opened in Norfolk (it's not ladylike to smirk, Mrs. Akers!) in 1930, but the next year a co-owner moved it to Richmond, where over time it burgeoned into 13 stores. The older of those restaurants--including the three that just closed--were haunted by the quiet ghosts of generations past. Men and women, many now gone, sat at tables and booths in those same buildings and wept for the Lindbergh baby, cursed the Japs, cheered footsteps on the moon. Isn't it curious how, on the bridge of human experience, that which is no longer present is often the strongest span?
On the wall of the Broad Street Bill's--granddaughter Julianna descriptively called it "the little piggy place"--a poster displayed individual photos of the chain's employees with years of service noted beneath each. Double-digit stints, some long enough to be called careers, were common. Almost all of Bill's clerks and cooks were African-Americans; many, from inner-city Richmond, took a daily bus to work. They knew their jobs, provided polite service, and earned a steady income that translated into rent paid, food and clothes bought, tithes offered, and small gifts given at Christmas. Bill's disallowed tips, but starting in November management winked. I am sorry that this November I cannot slip a Bill's clerk a couple of dollars.
What doomed Bill's is no mystery. Its platters once fed farmers, factory workers, and Depression alumni who weren't ashamed to eat. Later, it was mostly customers who grew up in that world who continued to patronize the restaurants--graybeards and matrons. Bill's grub, which made Shoney's lunch bar look haute, had little to tempt the stunted appetites of cubicled foodies, and its fusty store architecture and the Great Recession did the rest.
I will still call Richmond the Holy City, but I make this small concession to Mrs. Akers: It is not the Heavenly City. Not with Bill's gone. Who ever heard of a Heaven where streets of gold have empty storefronts and angels search help-wanted ads?