As I drove around the streets of Hampton Roads, I kept seeing one pervasive bumper sticker. It seemed as though wherever I was, at least one car on the street would have this sticker clinging to their bumper or their back windshield. It had different manifestations – as black sticker, an orange sticker, a white sticker – but the text was all the same. “Doumar’s – Part of What Makes Norfolk Great.”
The sticker itself did not give me any inkling into what Doumar’s was. But as I was sitting in the office and hunger gnawed away at me, I decided to do some research. A quick Google search returned all the results I needed – Doumar’s is an old fashioned drive-in restaurant that had rave reviews and was even featured on ‘Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives’, a popular show on the Food Network that features the best cheap eats in America.
Unfortunately, Google also revealed another limiting factor – this place was nowhere near my work so unfortunately it would have to wait until dinner.
After finishing work for the day and building my appetite, I jumped in the car and sped off to Doumar’s. It was a damp, rainy night, but I could see the sign advertising their cones and barbecue from a quarter mile or more down the street. As I pulled into the parking lot, I was greeted by the sight of a restaurant that time forgot.
Doumar’s is a product of a bygone era – the American drive-in. So popular in the 1950’s with the expansion of the suburbs, the automobile, and the consumer culture, the drive-in has since become a relic of the past with only a handful of true, independent, drive-ins still in operation.
But Doumar’s has stood the test of time. It is about as old school as you can get – no outdoor menus, no radio to phone in your order – just car hops who bring you your menu and meal with a smile. Yet they continue to drive a steady business, serving hungry locals and curious visitors alike.
Since it was a colder night, I opted for their dine-in service so I could get out of my car and into the restaurant. The interior appearance matched the exterior, and it seemed as though there hadn’t been a renovation in my lifetime (or possibly my parents either). This place isn’t faux-retro…it is absolutely authentic. Orange vinyl seating, dusty photographs clinging to the wall, and a neon ’Doumars’ sign overlooking the whole place help give the restaurant its unique character.
I grabbed a seat and a menu and began evaluating my choices. Much like the decor, the menu hasn’t changed much either. Pork barbecue with slaw, tuna fish salad, and a ham sandwich on toast are just some of the classic selections off the menu. And luckily the prices feel retro as well – I was able to get my pork barbecue sandwich for $2.30.
I was surprised at the speed of service – less than 30 seconds after I placed the order at my table, the waitress was back with my sandwich – served wrapped in some sort of cling wrap with a toothpick driven through the middle to hold it all together.
As I sat finishing my sandwich, I browsed the rest of the menu for dessert. After all, this place was called Doumar’s CONES and Barbecue and had two ice cream cones flanking its iconic sign out front – how could I come here and NOT get an ice cream cone?
But only as I started to browse the dessert menu and look around that I realized just how integral the ice cream cone was at Doumar’s, and more importantly, just how important Doumar’s is to the ice cream cone.
It turns out (and I honestly had no idea before my visit) that Doumar’s actually invented the ice cream cone at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. As the legend goes, Abe Doumar had an old waffle iron that he used and would then ‘roll up’ the waffles and top them with a scoop of ice cream. He brought a modified version of his machine to the World’s Fair in St. Louis where it gained immense popularity and notoriety. And the rest is history.
The original machine that was used at the World’s Fair can still be seen in Doumar’s today, and even more surprisingly, is still used to make the ice cream cones they serve! Albert Doumar, Abe Doumar’s nephew, comes in to hand roll the cones each morning on the old machine.
Knowing this history, I had to try one of their ice cream cones. I opted for a classic – a scoop of vanilla and a scoop of chocolate – which seemed fitting at this institution. Again, the food came out extremely quickly, and to my surprise the cone was warm.
The ice cream itself was nothing to write home about – but at least it was a good value. And the cone? It was actually pretty damn delicious. I think all ice cream shops should start serving their cones warm.
I finished up, paid my astonishingly low bill, and left back into the wet night. As I drove away back to my hotel I thought about the true rarity of what I just experienced. It wasn’t that long ago that these types of establishments were up and down every main drag in small towns and big cities alike.
But Doumar’s has persisted. To put it in perspective, since Doumar’s has been at their current location in 1934 (and not including the time they spent in various shacks along the beach) there have been 13 US Presidents, a man landed on the moon, and a burger stand from San Bernardino grew to become the largest restaurant empire in the world (think golden arches).
All the while, Doumar’s just kept doing what they do best – serving food quickly and for very little money to the hungry masses in Southeastern Virginia. Hundreds of thousands of restaurants have come and gone since, yet Doumar’s continues steadily on – serving up pork sandwiches and ice cream cones regardless of the changing attitudes and pressures of the outside world.
Perhaps this is what has led to their success; they’re old-school, they stick to their core competencies, and over time have built a substantial loyal following through word of mouth.
Only time will tell if Doumar’s will carry on long into the future, but based on the brisk pace of business they were doing on an otherwise slow Monday night, business looks to be steady.