Huntington swears by Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House and its old-school feel.
There’s something about Jim’s, locals will tell you. There’s something about the old-school restaurant with Huntington memorabilia lining the walls, servers in crisp white uniforms, and a cash- or check-only policy, that’s created a Huntington landmark. Its full name is Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House, but no one calls it that. Opened in 1938, the restaurant has a reputation for good service, few frills, and just-right comfort food, all due to its founder—Jim.
When Jim Tweel purchased The Kennedy Dairy Store on 5th Avenue in Huntington at the behest of his newly betrothed, Sally, the couple began selling burgers and shakes to city residents. “My dad started out working the grill and my mother worked with him back then,” says daughter Jimmie Carder, now part-owner and general manager of the family-owned restaurant. “For a long time my dad’s role was meeting and greeting the public and doing what it took out front to make the restaurant work—host, cashier, paperwork, menus, banking—he did it all.” And he was good at it. The restaurant grew and grew, staying open late to accommodate crowds tramping home from shows and dances in downtown Huntington.
In the mid-1940s an Italian immigrant named Roberto Elmoro dropped in wanting to help establish a local spaghetti house and offered his help with the menu. After learning Roberto’s original spaghetti sauce recipe—a family secret still used today—and expanding the restaurant to include a neighboring space, Jim reopened as The Spaghetti House in 1944. It continued to grow and evolve, becoming Jim’s Grill and Spaghetti House, and, finally, after another expansion in 1962, Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House.
Jimmie says she doesn’t remember much of Jim’s growing up. “I once asked my mother why I don’t have the memories of being here as a child,” she says. “But my mother cooked at home every night. They were so busy at the restaurant that we weren’t allowed to come down and take up a seat.” At lunch time the white counter was completely full. At dinner the olive green booths were packed. “For us to come as a family of five to sit and eat took up too much space,” Jimmie says of meal time with her two brothers. “So my mother cooked and my dad worked.”
But Jim’s wasn’t just a job to Jim. “The one thing I always tell people is that my father truly loved everybody,” Jimmie says. “He went out of his way to make everybody feel good, to feel good about themselves, that they wanted to come back just to see him.” In the days before the free refill, Jim thrilled at topping off customers’ drinks. If people were celebrating a birthday, graduation, anniversary, or any other occasion, he’d gift a silver dollar. “There was a large bowl near the cash register that contained packs of chewing gum and small candies like York Peppermint Patties,” recalls longtime customer Dick Ash. “If you told Jim that you had first-time visitors from out of town, he’d ask where they were from and then he’d go get the bowl and let them pick something.”
Dick supposes he went to Jim’s with his wife and coworkers for lunch at least once a week from 1979 until his retirement in 2014. “I love the spaghetti,” he says. “At first it might seem ordinary, since the sauce is a tomato sauce with a lot of ground beef, but it has a very good flavor and consistency.” It’s spicy enough to be piquant, but not too hot; tomato-y enough to be thick and sweet, but not overly so. The sauce is popular with a drizzle of Tabasco or as is—so popular that Jimmie and her staff make 40 gallons of spaghetti sauce every day to serve on dishes and to sell by the pint. Jimmie says Roberto’s recipe was tweaked a bit in 1948 but has stayed the same ever since. “We never change it,” she says. “We can’t afford not to do the same thing every day. We sell an enormous amount out the door.”
Like the spaghetti sauce, Jim’s hasn’t changed much over the years either. Customers are still greeted by a smiling waitstaff, many of whom are decades-long employees. The menu has expanded, offering everything from sandwiches to steak dinners to homemade desserts to Diet Coke—a hard fought battle for customers and staff alike. The restaurant is still decked out in shades of green and white. Lighting fixtures from the 1960s still grace the ceilings and walls. “We have memorabilia pictures all along the east and west walls—Marshall University, old music photos, famous people photos—all that Jim took,” Jimmie says. “My dad had access. He was known as the ambassador of Huntington.” The most famous of these pictures is a 1960s photo of John F. Kennedy visiting the restaurant during his 1960 campaign. That photo brings in hordes of tourists and diners. “It’s our million-dollar publicity stunt,” Jimmie says. “We’ve had people stand in line for 45 minutes to have their picture taken by it.”
Jimmie says the only plans for Jim’s future are to stay put. “To duplicate or put this place somewhere else just wouldn’t be possible,” she says. While Jim passed in 2005, the family is still around and working hard to keep his restaurant just the same. “Our goal right now is to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” she says. “We’re trying to keep things running as they have been to keep the customers happy, to keep the atmosphere that’s always been here. Nobody wants us to change. Nobody wants us to remodel. Nobody wants anything different.”
Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House
920 5th Avenue, Huntington, WV 25701
written by Katie Griffith