The romance of Jess’ Quick Lunch

jess

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Unabashed snobbery kept me from eating at Jess’ Quick Lunch for about seven years.

Jess’ Quick Lunch opened in the 1920s, besting fire (I was told) and perhaps health inspectors, to become a venerable mainstay of downtown Harrisonburg. It’s an old school restaurant, with a pharmacy lunch counter-esque menu. My grandfather would eat there and forget it’s 2014.

It’s not the cleanest restaurant, but it’s romantic that way.

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I skipped Jess’ for nearly a decade. The last time I ate there I was a college senior and 20 pounds chubbier. Jess’ menu — hot dogs, cheeseburgers and all phyla of deep-fried carbohydrate — is conducive to excessive tubs, so I stopped going. Also, there were better cheeseburgers in town, specifically those I ground from fresh chuck in a food processor and mushed to patty form under force of an empty 35-ounce tomato can wrapped in plastic. (They are then seasoned with kosher salt and cooked on a balls-hot griddle, lubed by butter.)

My last experience at Jess’, in 2007, was exceptional in the wrong way. There was disappointment and an overall feeling of gross. But recently, I’ve had cravings.

Near Christmas, my dad and I went to the Mechanicsville Pharmacy, which is in the east end of Richmond and has an actual pharmacy lunch counter. It’s run by the oldest old ladies, one of whom made me a $4 strawberry milkshake and had a tone when she told me she didn’t take credit cards. The pharmacy started the cravings for a dive-served cheeseburger, hot dog and fries.

So Monday night, a date and I ate at Jess’ Quick Lunch.

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The hot dogs are $1.60 — which makes me wonder what’s in them that they can be so cheap — and the soda is served in the can, accompanied by glass of ice. The fries are shoestring, and the burgers are cooked to one doneness: gray.

The dining room is a long, carpeted rectangle. The tables and chairs are old — and so is that smell, which was the same smell I smelled the last time I ate there. It’s probably the same smell everyone smelled the last time they ate there.

There are old pictures on the wall and a flatscreen TV in a front corner. The dining room feels like a hospice cafeteria. The row of light fixtures was stylish in 1988.

The other side of the restaurant — it’s halved by a wall — houses an open-concept, flattop-anchored kitchen abutting a love-worn lunch counter.

I blame my low expectations, but Jess’ was exactly what it needed to be. A hot dog, a cheeseburger and a side of fries — it was perfect. The taste was expected. The only way it could have been more perfect is if it was 2:30 a.m. and too much drinking preceded my visit.

Jess’ food isn’t remarkable. It could be argued that it isn’t even good, depending on your standards/expectations/snobbery. It’s likely the food is only cooked there, and that the parts that make the whole are assembled elsewhere, likely in the coldest mechanized way. But it works, and it works so well.

Monday, we were given two deep-fried pickles and two triangles of deep-fried macaroni and cheese (it was Easy Mac-like) for free because, I presume, they are new menu items and management is pushing it. (I reasoned this because of the advertisements for deep-fried pickles and deep-fried macaroni and cheese at the table.) Our dipping sauces were packaged ranch and packaged marinara sauce.

Jess’ has a greasy gravitas, and it’s sad most places like it are dead. But you should go for the romance, even if it’s a bit dowdy.

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3 thoughts on “The romance of Jess’ Quick Lunch

  1. I’ve been enjoying Jess hotdogs since I was about 5 years old and I’m nearing 58 now. I loved them then and I love them still. I have very fond memories of Jess quick lunch. My grandparents took me and my brother there as a child and now I’m taking my granddaughter and she loves it.

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    • It is an institution and, as a dedicated nostalgist, I regret not going more when I lived in Harrisonburg. (I was there from 2003-14.) I’ll actually be back in Harrisonburg this weekend and plan to make a stop.

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