A half-century ago today Grace and Bill Smith made a great contribution to the quality of life we enjoy here in the Northern Neck, for this day is the anniversary of the birth of their son Steve.
Visitors, shall we call them tourists?, who stayed at The Tides Inn came to know Bill for his gracious hospitality onboard the Miss Ann, the stately old launch that took guests up and down the Rappahannock and its tributaries.
Bill made voyages memorable for more than the scenery that they saw and in the process, given his gregarious nature, became friends with folks from far and wide.
Grace is also the quintessential hostess, for many years working at Lee’s Restaurant in Kilmarnock, the local hub of dining excellence known for its friendly atmosphere, not to mention fine culinary offerings.
Their son, Steve, went through the local school system, where he was a schoolmate of Terry Lee, the youngest child of Bill Lee the proprietor of Lee’s. After high school Steve matriculated at Rappahannock Community College in the culinary arts program. He studied there for four years, mastering every aspect of food preparation and service.
While still a student in high school Steve began working at Lee’s and having dated Terry during their school years, married her and became a permanent fixture at the restaurant, which itself has been a permanent fixture of Kilmarnock since 1938, operated first by Bill’s father, then by Bill, and since his time by his sons, Gerry and Bill, and son-in-law, Steve.
The Lee Family always has treated the restaurant as an extension of their home and their patrons are treated as guests. Bill Lee rarely let an opportunity pass to greet his customers with a tableside chat. He also knew that his menu was a gold mine and not to change it, thus it has remained, to use the appropriate term, the “staple” of the institution’s history. The late newspaper publisher, Don Hall, often said that the genius of Bill Lee’s operation lay in not changing the menu for over 50 years.
Steve has followed in the Lee tradition of genuinely enjoying the company of his patrons. He is the exemplary table-hopper, saying hello, passing along jokes and interesting stories to his customers and willingly sharing recipes of some of the restaurant’s delectable treats. Lee’s potato salad and blue cheese dressing, concoctions unique to the restaurant, are truly sublime. Added to the lore of the Lee’s tradition, Steve and Terry’s daughter, Sarah, presently is working there as well as Bill’s daughter, Jennifer.
Not a change in the menu, but a change of a different sort from Bill’s time, is the offering of potato salad six-days-a-week, whereas Bill usually only offered it on Tuesdays. For decades I tried to convince him to offer it on a daily basis, but he humorously would decline. Sometimes he would call to me on the street, in the post office, or at the “recycling center” (a.k.a. the “dump”), “I’ve got potato salad today.” I miss him greatly, but I am happy that his successors offer potato salad every day, for to me it is Lee’s “piece de resistance.”
Steve’s talents are by no means solely of a culinary nature. Several years ago he totally rebuilt a brick rancher, doing all of the work himself. He could walk out of the restaurant one day and go into the construction business the next, if he wanted to do so, but fortunately for diners he does not. In his more youthful years he worked in construction, during which time he paid close attention to how projects were undertaken and mastered that art as well.
Today appropriately is a time to thank Grace and Bill for their contribution of a genuine “Renaissance Man” to the Northern Neck experience and in the process to wish Steve a happy birthday. May the next half-century be as good to you, Steve, as in the past one you have been to others.