Trump Town

Race, class, and bad Italian food in central Virginia

Back when we first got engaged in 2017, my now-wife and I took a trip to Newport News and Virginia Beach on Memorial Day weekend. It was a lot of fun, despite us not actually going to the beach. We had some great oysters and all-you-can-eat crab legs, some improbably good Nepalese food, and we walked the Virginia Beach boardwalk and saw Colonial Williamsburg. We also ran into a Spanish grocery store and restaurant that we later found out has a slick catalog and big mail-order business. (And it was a Virginia Beach anniversary trip which spawned this piece about visiting the Great Dismal Swamp refuge.)

However, we weren’t feeling so great on our last day, so we cut short plans for a meandering return trip with a stop in Richmond, and opted to get something quick for lunch and get home. (Home was still in College Park, Maryland at that time, meaning it was an even longer drive than it is for us now, living in Northern Virginia.)

So we checked out of the hotel, left the Virginia Beach area, and pulled off the interstate to an Italian restaurant that happened to pop up on Google Maps (lesson learned: either eat somewhere before you hit the road, or pick a known quantity, like a fast food chain, if you’re already driving.) The Italian restaurant, perhaps to our benefit, was closed for Memorial Day, and we also ended up stuck in traffic as a Memorial Day parade passed by!

We had ended up in the small town of Sandston, Virginia, a little southeast of Richmond. It was, by appearances, mostly white working-class, with its main street consisting of little more than some modest tract houses, a dollar store, a small strip mall, and a little restaurant that was open for the holiday: Sandston Bistro.

My wife was not feeling well now, so we grabbed some cold medicine at the dollar store, and then we got some food at the Sandston Bistro, the only place we could go without getting in the car again. I checked the unassuming little place on Yelp, and, surprisingly, it had a four-out-of-five-star average (and it still does!). How bad could it be?

Well. It didn’t help that I must have still had Italian food in my head, and ordered possibly the two most inadvisable things to order from a small-town ice-cream-and-burger joint in the South: an Italian hoagie and a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. (Why were those items even on the menu?)

What arrived at the counter a few minutes later—the service was fast and friendly—was essentially a Lunchables-grade sandwich and a Banquet frozen spaghetti dinner. The hoagie was served with melted mozzarella on top, like a parm sub—odd but tasty enough—but the meat? A little ham and a little cooked salami, a tangy, fatty deli meat that barely resembles the Genoa salami you’d find in a sub or hoagie anywhere that Italian-Americans live.

The spaghetti and meatballs was, honestly, a little better than a frozen dinner; more like my college’s dining hall, or what you might get at a Chinese buffet that has a pizza and spaghetti tray out on the steam table.

We were hungry, and while the food was not what I’d expect for those items, it wasn’t poor quality. We didn’t feel well enough for ice cream, unfortunately, because later I went back to read the online reviews and realized that most of them were actually for the ice cream parlor and not the kitchen!

I actually thought a lot about this little experience. I felt a little bit out of place, class- and culture-wise, not to mention my wife, who grew up in a city in China. I imagine that this kind of food is pretty par for the course in much of the South, and at this socio-economic level. It might even be a treat. I think of how for a lot of Americans, “spaghetti night” meant jarred Ragu (or some other brand). Growing up in an Italian-American household, I don’t think I ever had pre-made spaghetti sauce out of a jar. Plenty of people consider “pizza” synonymous with one of the big three pizza chains. I pretty much consider pizza the opposite of those restaurants. And on and on. This might sound snobbish, but the thing is, the higher-quality versions of these dishes that I’m used to are totally normal and standard for me and where I grew up, in central New Jersey.

All I can say is that for me, the Sandston Bistro was below par, given my expectations for the menu items they offered. But for a small town in an area without a lot of restaurants, I can see how a place like this is a community fixture. It’s not really about the food, anyway, as long as it’s edible, which it certainly was. It’s more about having a place to hang out, to meet up, to bring the kids, to gather after a football game. Kind of like Chris Arnade’s McDonalds’, Sandston Bistro is the “third place” for a place like Sandston.

Actually, Sandston is rather interesting. It once had a trolley line to Richmond, and while it resembles any other small, sparsely built Southern town, it began differently:

From Wikipedia:

During World War I, a number of homes were built in the area for both non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. After the war, an investment group headed by Oliver J. Sands bought the land and buildings as surplus property. The community was named Sandston after Oliver Sands, the president of the Richmond and Fairfield Railway, the electric street railway line which ran through Highland Springs and Fair Oaks to the National Cemetery at Seven Pines.

Here’s a website on the history of towns and neighborhoods that goes into a little more detail. Also, don’t miss the reproduced marketing pamphlet from 1923 on Sandston as “the ideal residential suburb,” which notes matter-of-factly that “EVERY normal person has a strong desire to own a home.”

My wife and I still call Sandston “Trump Town,” and our little excursion there brings to mind a conversation we had at a dinner party with some grad school friends. One of them was recounting a road trip through the South, during which they spent a night or two in Alabama. While his girlfriend (also at dinner) was in the bathroom, somebody asked him snidely if he was in line for the ladies’ room (he didn’t know if it was a remark about his long-ish hair, or on gender neutral bathrooms.)

He and his girlfriend are white, but he basically said something to the effect of, I don’t really feel any commonality with white people with whom I don’t share culture, certainly not any sense of race-based commonality.

I realized that I feel the same way: in fact, I’m probably more conscious of my race in heavily white areas, or perhaps, more conscious of my class. I feel more at home and unselfconscious in diverse Northern Virginia, even in majority-Black Prince George’s County, Maryland, than I did in Sandston. Despite growing up in upper-middle-class white suburbia in New Jersey, I never really felt any sense of being out of place in far more crowded and diverse places.

I don’t say this to pat myself on the back or to sound politically correct, but rather because I find it interesting that I have trouble seeing the appeal of a place like Sandston Bistro, which is normative for a heck of a lot more Americans than my own everyday life is. I have to almost work through it intellectually. It reminds me that mostly knowing people like yourself doesn’t mean you’re not in a bubble, but that you probably are.

One more thing: I remember back in college, one of my political science professors said, “You might know everything about American government, but you’re probably helpless if your car breaks down.”

It’s great to have an interest or hobby or area of expertise or way of life. It’s not useful to apologize for your preferences (unless they’re truly offensive, in which case you should do more than merely apologize!) But it’s not great to look down on people who have others, or to make the elitist mistake of conflating education or expensive tastes with virtue. I’m not saying I did or do that—but it’s a good life lesson to keep in mind, and our little accident visit to Sandston helped crystalize that for me.

Related Reading:

Iconic Hometown Restaurant, Obsolete Dining Concept?

What Does Waterford Mean?

If you like what you’re seeing, please consider a paid subscription to help support this work. You’ll get a weekend subscribers-only post, plus full access to the archive. And you’ll help ensure more material like this!