Pit Stop, Southern Style at Sally Bell's Kitchen
Sally Bell’s Kitchen in Richmond, Virginia, serves up homemade classics and a taste of the past
When I was nine, my family moved from southern California to North Carolina. My parents, my sister and I went from taking annual cross-country plane rides to visit my mother’s family in Quebec to driving the 18-hour journey between Raleigh and Montreal—US 1 to I-85, I-95, I-87.
We’d spend the hectic night before and morning of packing the car with ten days’ worth of everything the family, including our two dogs, needed for the trip. If we had time, my mother would make a stack of sandwiches with whatever perishables we hadn’t yet used up and stash them in a cooler. If not, we’d stop at rest areas for fast food and snacks.
Now that I live along I-95, my partner and I regularly make trips north and south to visit family. I usually follow my mom’s thrifty example, packing a small cooler with sandwiches or my favorite cheeses, cured meats, fruit, and other car snacks.
But it was on a weekend trip with a car full of my lady friends, going to Carolina Beach, North Carolina, that I first tasted my new favorite road food for trips south. Between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, hunger struck. One of my traveling companions, a South Carolina native, had a suggestion: If we didn’t hit traffic, we’d make it to Richmond just in time to buy old-school Southern boxed lunches at Sally Bell’s Kitchen just before they closed for the day.
We made it just in time. We were rewarded for our efforts when we walked into a squat brick building on Grace Street, the home of Sally Bell’s Kitchen for nearly 90 years. Each of us left with a boxed lunch, white cardboard tied with cotton twine and bearing an illustrated profile of the eponymous cook on the box, assembled by the friendly Southern ladies behind the counter, who also helped us select a coconut custard pie for that night’s dessert. We sat in the grass at a nearby park and eagerly unboxed our treasures, reveling in a simple yet satisfying meal on our long journey. And we’d spent around nine dollars each.
Ordering a Sally Bell’s boxed lunch goes like this: Select your sandwich filling from options like pimento cheese, corned beef and chicken salad, then pick a bread (white, wheat, rye or roll). Choose between the famous potato salad; macaroni salad topped with a crinkle-cut pickle; tomato aspic; Virginia-made potato chips or a fruit cup. Pick a cupcake stuffed with lemon filling or frosted on the sides and bottom in cheery colors and flavors like chocolate, pineapple, orange, strawberry, caramel and almond.
Two more accompaniments—half a deviled egg wrapped in waxed paper, and a tender, savory cheddar wafer baked golden and inset with a pecan half—are included in every lunch box.
Many of the sandwich selections that are less common today, like corned beef spread or cream cheese and nut, were drawn from the menus at tea rooms, where respectable ladies would dine out when Sally Bell’s first opened nearly a century ago.
“The atmosphere that we try to provide is [somewhere between] the kitchen at home and that kind of tea room,” says owner Scott Jones, grandnephew of the eponymous Sally Bell.
The cheese wafer is another classic touch, reminiscent of the cheddar- cheese straw in its savory, buttery flavor and flaky texture.
As for those inverted cupcakes? “We’re doing a cupcake the right way. Everyone else does it wrong,” Jones deadpans. “They’re cheating you by just icing the very bottom of it.” In addition to more frosting— a compelling argument if I ever heard one—treating the wide end of a cupcake as the bottom has the added benefit of keeping the treat from tipping over.
The original Sally Bell—Sarah Cabell Jones—started the restaurant in the early 1920s with her business partner, Elizabeth Lee Milton. The two met at the Richmond Exchange for Women’s Work, a sort of bazaar where ladies, who were discouraged from working outside the home back then, could bring food, crafts and other items they’d made to sell to each other.
“What I gathered from family discussions,” says Jones, was that “she decided to do this thing. And everyone was like, ‘You can’t do that. You’re a woman.’”
Cabell, as the family calls her, did it anyway—and made the shop her life’s work. She never married, sleeping above the shop during the work week and riding the trolley home to nearby Ashland on weekends.
“She was a pioneer in that regard,” Jones says of his great-aunt, who also fought for women’s rights during the suffragist era. “For a conservative person, she was very progressive.”
Jones’s mother ran the shop for a few decades after Jones and his siblings were grown; his wife Martha has helped to run it since the early 1980s. When Jones’s mother was ready to retire and wanted to sell the building, it was decided that Jones, who had been working in sales, and Martha would buy out his other siblings and become the new owners.
When I spoke with Jones, he was in the process of moving Sally Bell’s Kitchen from its longtime location on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus to a new spot on Broad Street. Located on the outskirts of the up-and-coming Scott’s Addition neighborhood—still convenient to I-95—the new Sally Bell’s Kitchen will count recently opened microbreweries and loft apartments among its neighbors. (A second, scaled-down Sally Bell’s is located at the Valentine Museum in the heart of downtown, which chronicles the history of Richmond.)
Jones says that not much has changed in the new space. The counter from the original shop and much of the equipment have come along to the new location, with new cooking equipment that will allow a few hot menu items to be added. The new Sally Bell’s will also offer seating so that customers can eat in.
“We’re keeping the touchstones, I like to say,” says Jones. “When people walk into the new place, we want them to go, ‘Hey, this is Sally Bell’s.’” The back-of-house space in the new location will be better for his employees, too: “In the old place, it was like working in a submarine.”
For Richmond natives, some of whom have been coming here for decades, Sally Bell’s provides a taste of the past—the cupcakes they coveted as children or the perfect potato salad, a particular favorite around the holidays, like their grandmother used to make.
For travelers passing through town, the shop offers a taste of a different time and place you can’t get anywhere else. The menu remains, for the most part, stubbornly unchanged, though a few options (ham spread, for one) have faded from the menu in favor of choices that reflect the passage of time (“lite” turkey).
The food at Sally Bell’s is consistent, portable and delicious. It’s made fresh every morning almost entirely by hand—including the mayonnaise, excluding the sliced bread—by a small army of longtime employees, mostly women. That’s something that no roadside Sbarro, Burger King or Wawa can ever provide.
Sally Bell’s Kitchen
2337 W. Broad St., Richmond, Virginia
Hot Stops Going South on I-95
Luckily, Sally Bell’s is far from the only great stop for road food. Keep this handy to support local-food businesses instead of the big fast food chains during your east coast road trips.
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Located about 10 minutes off 95 near Jessup, Great Sage offers plant-based foods inspired by flavors from across the world, along with La Colombe coffee, smoothies and organic juices. Dishes like Pomegranate Couscous Salad (to which roasted tofu, Buffalo cauliflower or blackened faux chicken may be added) and Butternut Squash and Potato Terrine provide a welcome exception to the usual heavy road fare. A rare find for the vegan, vegetarian or health-conscious traveler.
CHAP’S PIT BEEF
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Bob and Donna Creager have been turning out stellar barbecue just off I-895 in Baltimore’s Dundalk neighborhood for nearly 30 years—ever since the shop was a tiny shack in the parking lot of Donna’s dad’s club. Choose from sandwiches featuring the classic “Best in Baltimore” pit beef, fried fish or deli favorites, or mix it up with hot dogs or barbecued chicken and sides like green beans, mac and cheese or coleslaw, with homemade rice pudding for dessert.
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King’s has been slinging “Southside Virginia” barbecue, a pit-smoked style that dates back to seventeenth-century English settlers, since 1946 in this location, just 8 minutes off I-95. Pork, beef and chicken are sauced with an old family recipe that includes vinegar, mustard and tomato. The menu also includes southern classics like buttermilk fried chicken, locally caught fried wild catfish, burgers, ham and traditional sides. Best of all, King’s sells bottles of that special sauce—ranging from pints to gallon jugs—to take with you.