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2018-01-31 / Featured / Taste

Half hunger, half history: Diners have two reasons to stop at this old house

BY RICH GRISET STAFF WRITER

The specialty of the house is a petite filet mignon with Chesapeake Bay crab cake or jumbo blue water fried shrimp. JENNY McQUEEN The specialty of the house is a petite filet mignon with Chesapeake Bay crab cake or jumbo blue water fried shrimp. JENNY McQUEEN It’s been more than 250 years since a family named Hatcher erected a stagecoach stop and tavern for travelers midway between Petersburg and Richmond. And it shows.

Today, the four-lane highway and apartments that flank the Half Way House restaurant bear little resemblance to the remote countryside it sprang from. Inside, though, visitors can still find a seat beneath the hand-hewn beams and tuck in to a candlelit steak dinner.

Fittingly for an old building, it was a love of history that brought current owners Rick and Sue Young to the Half Way House. Specifically, aviation history.

In 1980, the couple was spending their honeymoon on the Outer Banks – not sunbathing, but building a reproduction of the Wright Brothers’ 1902 manned glider. Rick Young – who edited The Smithsonian book “The Published Writings of Wilbur and Orville Wright” – and his new bride shared an enthusiasm for making and flying the vintage contraptions. At the time, a citizen group was pushing to abolish all glider flights at the shore’s Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which sent the Youngs in search of a comparable location in the area. They came across Penny’s Hill in Corolla, and decided to buy land on a sand dune nearby to have a place to fly.

Half Way House diners can enjoy candlelit meals in one of two upstairs dining rooms or the rustic brick English basement, above. JENNY McQUEEN Half Way House diners can enjoy candlelit meals in one of two upstairs dining rooms or the rustic brick English basement, above. JENNY McQUEEN The parents of the man who sold them the land were Dorothy and Fred Bender, the then-owners of the Half Way House on Jefferson Davis Highway. Their son mentioned the restaurant, and stayed in touch with the Youngs, who had extensive restaurant experience. Two years later, the Youngs relocated to Chesterfield and bought the historic eatery, and they’ve been serving up steak- and seafood-laden entrees ever since.


Chef Ray Allen and owners Sue and Rick Young outside the Half Way House. 
PHOTO COURTESY RICK YOUNG Chef Ray Allen and owners Sue and Rick Young outside the Half Way House. PHOTO COURTESY RICK YOUNG “When we first took over, it was more traditional southern,” says Sue Young, sitting in one of the Half Way House’s quaint upstairs dining rooms, where wood floors and white tablecloths provide a less rustic atmosphere than the brick basement below. “It was baked ham and chicken livers, frog legs. We’ve kind of evolved.”

Today’s menu showcases more seafood than it used to, including crab cakes, pan-roasted salmon and lobster tail. Other additions under the Youngs’ tenure include a New Zealand-sourced rack of lamb finished with a rosemary demi-glace and a Cajun pasta dish that incorporates pan-roasted chicken, andouille sausage and crawfish tails with tomatoes and onions over penne. The most popular item is the “specialty of the house,” a petite filet mignon paired with either jumbo blue water fried shrimp or a Chesapeake Bay crab cake.

One constant during the Youngs’ time has been Ray Allen, the restaurant’s executive chef. Allen was hired two years after the Youngs took over. He’s worked there ever since, and began managing the kitchen when he was just a senior in high school.

“Sue and Rick are pretty much like my parents,” says Allen, a Chester native. “We kind of grew up together. When I came here, I was 14 and they were like 27, 28, so we all kind of grew into the business.”

Preceding the three young people over the years were countless guests, including such notables as Robert E. Lee, Charles Dickens, George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.

The area surrounding the eatery was part of a land grant given to the Hatcher family in 1743 from King George II. The Hatchers built the building around 1760 as a stagecoach stop and tavern, which was in use until nearly the time of the Civil War. The building served as Union General Benjamin F. Butler’s headquarters during the Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff and a hospital after the fact.

Following the war, the building stayed in the Hatcher family until about 1929, when it was purchased by W. Brydon Tennant, an attorney. It had fallen into disrepair, and Tennant spent years refurbishing it, operating it briefly as a private restaurant. The Benders bought the house from his estate in 1941, opening it to the public as a restaurant the following year. The Half Way House restaurant has operated continuously ever since. Not surprisingly, the historical atmosphere at the Half Way House is as much a draw for customers as its food. The English basement space features two fireplaces and wood tables where diners can eat by candlelight. The two upstairs dining rooms – one of which the Youngs previously used to build Wright glider reproductions – are furnished with antiques.

“We have great ambiance for any occasion,” Allen says. “A lot of wedding proposals happen here, and then they’re back the next year to celebrate their first anniversary.”

The romantic ambiance means the restaurant is nearly booked up for Valentine’s Day, and is completely booked for the Saturday following the holiday.

Rick Young doesn’t shy from explaining the restaurant’s popularity. “Not only are we a historic place and a nice, intimate, cozy place,” he says, “but we have spectacular food.” 

Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we incorrectly attributed the land grant given to the Hatcher family for the area surrounding the Halfway House. The land was granted by King George II in 1743. 

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