If the only time you venture to the far East End is to catch a plane out of Richmond, chances are you've never noticed the hole-in-the-wall hangout beside the chainsaw store. It's called The Sandstonian; that's Sandstonian with a crucifix for a "t," a point echoed by the 13 or so portraits of Jesus displayed inside.
And if you end up early for your next flight and are looking for a last supper or to grab a sammie for the plane, keep in mind that beyond Williamsburg Road's wall of Waffle Houses and fast-food joints lies a more memorable option, one representative of a disappearing ethnic culture: small-town America.
I'm an East Ender myself, and as far as lunch goes, this place is a well-kept secret. White deli paper tightly wrapped like a little Christmas present signals a different kind of culinary training. Philly cheese-steaks big enough for two meals melt in your mouth. The supreme (Italian) sub, again gigantic, is made with the best cold cuts and decked out in olive oil and vinegar.
There is excellent Carolina barbecue on a long sub bun, interesting wraps like the Creole shrimp salad and straightforward burgers. With prices ranging from $2.95 for a grilled cheese to $5.95 for a club with turkey and roast beef, you can surely afford to spring for an order of tasty fries and gravy a New Jersey boardwalk specialty or sample the various mayo-based salads in the coleslaw, pasta and potato varieties. Everything on the lunch menu is colossal in proportion and perfectly prepared for what it is: good, simple, honest.
Above all else, this is a real family joint. Everyone in the Annunziata family pitches in, working the register, cooking, cleaning up and delivering orders. So how does an Italian restaurant family from Jersey come to set up shop in Sandston? Research into family roots led to a trip to Virginia, and the family fell in love. They're now going on their third year, and business is booming so much so that the Annunziatas have begun to expand.
"We've been in the delicatessen business for the last 14 years," says Richard Annunziata, father and head cook. "Those hours ending after lunch had allowed us to keep up with our kids."
That works; for me, this place is all about sandwiches. But as their kids have grown, the family business has changed. With their eld-est now in high school, the Annunziatas have introduced a sit-down dinner business, one that Richard hopes will benefit from the impending addition of a full ABC license.
In order to succeed, however, the non-lunch menus need more than liquor.
The entrées I sampled at breakfast were not well-prepared. A ham and cheese omelet came out as scrambled eggs with large deli-style slices of ham, and the home fries were simply boiled quartered potatoes. The French toast was soggy, and the bacon had clearly visited the deep fryer, as it came in a brittle rectangular tangle. As with lunch, the secret at breakfast seems to be sandwiches. Try any of the huge morning sandwiches, and you'll be happy. Stray too far, and execution is dodgy at best.
As for dinner, the fried shrimp and the baked flounder were tasty, and the sides of rice and vegetables were well-seasoned. The barbecue is truly excellent, even as a dinner entrée, and the crab cakes are as good as those at some Fan bistros (after all, crab cakes are best when kept straightforward). But the real issue here is one of décor and accoutrement.
What works for the Sandstonian's no-frills attitude may just be the thing that sinks it in the dinner market. Paper plates and plastic ware, plastic patio furnishings, a dropped ceiling with fluorescent lighting, beverage coolers proudly proclaiming their sponsorship serving as partition for a back dining room, their compressors exposed and noisily chugging away: All add up to an unlikely venue for a date night.
On the other hand, there are plenty of toys lying around to entertain little ones. And when your food is delivered by a cheerful preteen, it takes family-friendly to a new level. This smoke-free restaurant is the most welcoming place in which my wife and I have dined with our 18-month-old, and that may be a niche in itself. S
The Sandstonian ($) NS
400 W. Williamsburg Road
328-0292Monday: 6 a.m.-2 p.m.; Tuesday-Wednesday: 6 a.m.-7 p.m.;
Thursday-Saturday: 6 a.m.-8 p.m.