My family and I also miss Skoby’s anytime we want to share a meal or celebrate a special occasion. We are not unique. Skoby’s was a destination for families across the region for nearly six decades. It’s not unusual to see posts on social media either sharing happy memories or seeking recipes for this or that dish. Skoby’s most-requested recipe was for its creamed corn, and for years the restaurant kept printed copies on hand up front to hand out to anyone who asked. When the restaurant closed, the owners shared it in a story in the Times News. And it can be found in a Kingsport Junior League cookbook.
The restaurant opened in 1946 as a drive-in specializing in barbecue. It grew rapidly and its menu expanded. Its founders were Fred and Helen Barger. Eventually it was the nicest place in town and drew customers from across the region.
The last night the Barger family presided over the iconic eatery was Saturday, Aug. 28, 2004.
Fred “Pal” Barger Jr. had announced a few weeks earlier that he was donating the building and its contents to Virginia Intermont College for use as a culinary arts campus. The college created a completely new menu and semi-rebranded the restaurant as Virginia Intermont College’s Skoby’s Restaurant. What had been Skoby’s Pantry, at the far end of the building from its main entrance, became Virginia Intermont College’s Red Blanket Bakery.
Virginia Intermont, however, began to flounder and its culinary arts program ended by 2007. Today the college itself no longer exists.
The restaurant’s contents were auctioned on Labor Day 2010 and the building subsequently demolished.
I was there for the announcement Pal had donated Skoby’s to the college. My longtime friend Vicki Cooper Trammell and I, like many others, were shocked and initially dismayed. Vicki and I sat at Table 10 in the Butcher Shop section of Skoby’s for a couple of hours wondering what the future would bring. Vicki had been with Skoby’s for more than 20 years. I had considered it my home away from home since I was 17. It was my place to go “where everybody knows your name” (as well as your regular drink order, your favorite menu items, and your favorite table or barstool).
The restaurant was packed every night from the day of Pal’s announcement through that last Saturday night. People who hadn’t been in years showed up, right along with the devout. I visited a few times but couldn’t bring myself to sit down and enjoy a meal. Prior to Pal’s announcement, I had last eaten at Skoby’s with an out-of-town friend. We were in the Back Room and Pal, wife Sharon, and daughter Christy Stout were at the adjoining table. Our two parties turned into one and Pal picked up the check. I’d decided I wanted that to be my final memory of dinner at Skoby’s. But, oh, I have so many more. As do many of you, I know (please share your own memories in the comments section below).
Vicki went on to work as a manager and administrator for Virginia Intermont. The first private party held at VIC’s incarnation of Skoby’s was my parents’ 50th anniversary celebration. We had a great time and that is another precious memory. But everyone missed Skoby’s menu — especially the famous 21-foot salad bar.
Each year near my birthday I make a batch of Skoby’s blue cheese salad dressing, plus a batch of Skoby’s house dressing. I always ladled both on my salads (“the pewter plates are chilled, so don’t forget to take your napkin to the salad bar”). And I buy some port wine cheese and melba toast. But I miss everything else, especially curb burgers; the cocktail sauce; onion rings (by the foot or half-foot); French onion soup; lobster bisque; rosin baked potatoes; shrimp & filet plate mate; Sundown Supper; mud pie; and fried ice cream.
Mostly, I miss the atmosphere and the people.
I do have some oddities from the auction. I bought 40,000 Skoby’s postcards. Yes, 40,000. Vicki took half of them off my hands. I swapped some to other buyers of bulk items in the attic. I have a very large, heavy, black-lacquered sign that reads “Elbow Room” (it came from Skoby’s “Orient” section), and a pair of brick-tile-topped oak tables that used to sit in the Pantry. I have three versions of the Skoby’s signature water glass. Somewhere, I have a quart jar full of the plastic monkeys and bulls they used as picks to hold lemon or lime garnishes on drinks.
After the building was demolished, Pal (who, by the way, celebrated his 89th birthday last week) had the site graded and landscaped into a large, open greenspace. The lamp posts that used to help guests navigate the Skoby’s parking lot now line the property line along Konnarock Road.
I wonder how many youngsters drive by each day and don’t know the history of that beautiful piece of land.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government. Email him at [email protected]