The last time I lived in a college town was when I was in college. You know, before we had kids. Back when we didn’t even start getting ready to go out until 10 pm, and when “Bar & Grill” actually meant “Bar (with food).” I had forgotten about this party-driven aspect of college towns, towns that exist solely because a large university planted itself there and a hard-drinking, student-loving community grew up around it. So when the kids and I arrived at 5:30 pm in Blacksburg after four days on the road (we had an extra day thanks to the car breaking down), all I remembered is how much fun college towns are. How much personality each little local place has, and how much good cheap food there is. I had no intention of grocery shopping and eating in. I wanted to go downtown.
The kids and I wandered up and down Main Street for about half an hour looking for a burger. We passed the Frosty Parrot top-your-own frozen yogurt place (filed that one away for later), a pita/gyro/falafel place (filed that one away, too), several pizza-by-the-slice places, and finally found a bar & grill with about a dozen twenty-somethings smoking cigarettes outside the front door. It looked like a fun place, full of people, so we passed through the smoky corridor and seated ourselves at a high top, the only seating I could see besides stools at the bar. The place smelled like stale beer, and no wait staff paid any attention to us when we sat down (I realized after our next experience that there probably wasn’t a wait staff), and while I would have been fine there (I REALLY wanted a beer after our trip), I figured maybe it was a little too much bar and not enough grill for the kids. So we moved on.
After more wandering, we found Gillie’s, a vegetarian restaurant I would have loved to eat at after four days of road food, but my son wanted a meat burger, not a bean burger. So on we walked. Finally, when we could take the searching no more, we landed at The Rivermill. All I saw was “Bar & Grill,” and I was sold. We walked in to find a bearded young man perched on a bar stool, texting as he sat sentry. He glanced up at me, then down at the kids and said, “I have to have all the unders out by 9 o’clock.” He glanced at his phone. “It’s 7:50 now.” I laughed on the inside, absolutely delighted with the unexpectedness of this burger-hunt, and how completely different it was from our past 8 years of eating out with children (you know, where you get a kids menu and a packet of crayons because they are actually expecting children to eat in their restaurant.)
We went to sit down in one of the wooden booths and the sentry said, “Order at the bar,” then went back to texting. As we ate our burgers and I drank my beer (both of which were incredible, by the way, and I think the burgers were $6.50ish as opposed to the $9 we usually paid in the Twin Cities) I smiled to myself as I watched a guy across the street, hiding behind a baseball cap and sunglasses and trying to look cool, pitch and swagger down the sidewalk with the focused purposefulness of the drunk-who’s-trying-not-to-look-drunk. The kids ate their burgers and drank their bar juice (pineapple?) and were totally oblivious to the differentness of it all. Maybe because it wasn’t all that different to them. It only seems different to me because I remember that other life, the life in a college town before having kids, when you could just pop in wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted, without worrying about whether they’re going to have mac n’ cheese or applesauce, or whether the place is appropriate for your companions. The life where I might have been the drunk-who’s-trying-not-to-look-drunk.
I got my unders out by 9 o’clock, after having our pictures made in the photo booth over by the pool tables. Since then, I have heard that THE place in town to take kids is Macado’s, a funky little restaurant that actually does have a kids menu, complete with mazes, word scrambles, and maybe even crayons. The funny thing is, my 8 year old son really wants to take his dad back to The Rivermill when he arrives in town. Because as my son said after four grueling days on the road and finally, finally arriving at our destination, “The Rivermill was awesome!” I think we’re going to like it here, bars (with food) and all.