By DAVID SIBRAY ∙ For The State Journal
West Virginia suffers no lack of ice cream stands. Roadside restaurants featuring frozen desserts have achieved landmark status in even its most rural towns. Some stands, however, are legendary beyond their home communities, and the Dairy Queen at Hinton is such a place.
No one has confirmed how many thousands of customers have patronized the restaurant over more than 50 years, but many confirm that its reputation extends outward far beyond the state.
On any summer afternoon, scores of cars and trucks line the highway and fill parking lots within walking distance. Patrons say crowding shouldn't dissuade potential customers. The food is worth a wait, as is the view of the New River from the restaurant's dining room.
The director of the principal tourism agency for southern West Virginia, a native son of the Hinton area, said the restaurant certainly qualifies as a must-see, must-do destination that should be featured on any tour of the upper valley of the New River.
"Without question, it's one of the top landmarks in the New River region," said Doug Maddy, executive director of the Southern West Virginia Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"The food, the ambiance, and, I'd say, it's location in one of the state's most popular outdoor-recreation destinations have a lot to do with its popularity."
Established on a rural highway in the 1950s, the simple block building with a glass front became the nucleus around which an institution was established. The windows of the original stand remain inside the front of today's restaurant.
According to historian Wayne Harvey, who has been eating at the DQ since he was a child, the stand was opened by Robert "Bob" and Maxine Kirk, who later sold the business to its current owners, Leonard and Wilma Anderson.
The DQ was the second eatery on the highway, built alongside the Shore Drive-In. Both were established after completion of the Bellpoint Bridge over the New River. (Years after the Kirks sold the DQ to the Andersons, the Kirks' son opened Kirk's Restaurant at the site of the former Shore Drive-In.)
An indoor dining area and a small playground with a merry-go-round were provided for visiting children in the 1970s, and secondary dining rooms were added to accommodate meetings and small groups.
The restaurant's many-windowed dining area affords plenty for guests to discuss as they enjoy what's widely considered an exceptional bill of fare. Many Dairy Queens use a franchise menu, but the Hinton DQ maintains a menu based on the one established by the Kirks, which features hot dogs served on grilled New England-style rolls, a perennial favorite.
Good food, singular locale — these are often enough to sustain a healthy restaurant through the years, but the restaurant's very association with the experience of traveling to Hinton increases its charm, as far as many outsiders are concerned.
Susan Byrge Veramessa recalls from her childhood the journey from Beckley and the tradition of a meal at the DQ.
"Stopping on the way to the fair or camping — we got out if the car and ran straight for the swings, which were right on the side of the road, and then [to] the sandbox and the carousel. Dad would have to drag us inside to give our order and eat. Then we would walk down to the river and throw rocks," she said.
The restaurant was also popularized by its proximity to Bluestone Lake, a favorite fishing destination for thousands of miners from the coalfields west of the New River Valley. Emery Spence, who grew up in Wyoming County, recalled the 60-mile drive to the eatery.
"People all around used to go to Bluestone Lake. For years it was the only lake around. Coal miners spent their vacation there," Spence noted. "People, from even here in Wyoming County, drove up there on the weekend just to eat there, it was an all-day thing."