by Henry Lane Hull
As I drive down Route 200 in Wicomico Church, inevitably every time my eyes turn towards the commercial building on the east side of the road in the middle of the village. Originally a service station, it underwent a significant change in 1958 when Elton and Irene Clegg opened a restaurant on the site. There, for 20 years, it stood as a gathering place for folks from all over the lower Northern Neck and beyond.
The establishment simply was called Clegg’s Restaurant, and it served breakfast, lunch and dinner. Actually, it was open all day from about 6 in the morning until 9 at night. The key word in understanding the mystique of Clegg’s was “homemade.” Everything served was home cooked on the premises.
The Cleggs began their day early, with Elton in the kitchen with his Barlow knife cutting the raw potatoes into French fries. When a knife would wear out, he would get a new one, but always the routine would be the same. Every French fry would have been cut individually, and always cooked precisely by the owner of the restaurant.
While Elton was cutting the fries, Irene was concocting her immortal potato salad. For all of her food, she never used a recipe, having either memorized the formulas or working them out in the process. She had an innate sense of what diners would like, and she produced everything by hand. Her vegetable soup was as memorable as her potato salad.
During the growing months, the Cleggs had a garden adjoining the restaurant where they grew most, if not all, of the vegetables that they served. During the winter months, most of the vegetables came from the freezer, where they had reposed since being picked in the garden during the summer.
Elton was famous for his steaks, the two main offerings being Sirloin For Two and T-bone. He would put a frozen steak in boiling water for a quick minute, then cook it on the stovetop exactly as the customer ordered. He said his method kept the meat tender. Soft-shell crabs were another house specialty. He did not like the idea of heavily breading the crabs, which he thought destroyed the crab flavor. Instead, he gently sautéed them to the right level of crispness, and of course all of the crabs had been hand-cleaned by Elton.
Irene’s crabcakes were equally sublime. She put a small amount of parsley in them, which she claimed brought out the crab flavor. For dessert, her homemade pies were the requisite order of the day.
The food was served by the Cleggs’ children when they were home, and on occasion by her sister, Melva Coleman, and her cousin, Vera Harding. Clegg’s Restaurant was a family affair from start to finish. For many years, the Cleggs were joined by Effie Yerby assisting in the food preparation, and contributing her own ideas to the overall production.
After 20 years Irene and Elton decided to retire from the long hours and constant pace of the restaurant, which was open seven days a week. Their retirement came as shock to the numerous patrons who would stand chatting on the parking lot for an hour, or sometimes two, on a weekend evening waiting for a table.
Across the road at “Ingleside,” Colonel Edwin Tignor, who had retired back to his family home after having been one of the founders of the U. S. Army Dental Corps, would not allow his farmer to plant corn in the front field in order for him to be able to sit on his porch and see who was coming and going at Clegg’s, which was truly the place to be.
Today the building remains, but in a greatly transmogrified appearance. Looking back at the genuinely “good old days” at Clegg’s, I think of how different life was back then in comparison with the rush, rush manner in which business is conducted today. The essence of Clegg’s was greater than the wonderful food; it was even more the wonderful family that produced it.