This new Williamson café brings big-city taste to the coalfields.
“We bounced around a whole lot of names before one stuck,” says Debbie Young, who owns a popular new café in downtown Williamson with her daughter Natalie Taylor and longtime friend Robyn Gannon. The trio eventually decided on 34:Ate, a nod to Psalms 34:8, which begins “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Diners might not catch the reference right away, but the sentiment is hard to miss: As you can you taste and see, 34:Ate is very good.
“One of our favorite places to go is Charleston, South Carolina. It’s become a food mecca. A lot of my inspiration comes from there,” Debbie says. She particularly likes Cru Café, a gourmet comfort food restaurant run out of a small house, and wanted to bring something similar to Williamson. So after retiring in 2009 after 34 years as an elementary school teacher, Debbie began her second career as a restaurateur.
She found a small building just down the street from the Mingo County Courthouse. It was a great spot for a restaurant, located within walking distance from lots of government and law offices, but the building was vacant and really run down. “We just came by here one day and there was a sign on the door that said ‘In case of emergency, call this number.’ I called the number and asked if they wanted to sell,” Debbie says. The price was reasonable, and Debbie and her husband, Charles, bought the property in late 2013, but it still needed lots of work. They spent the next year remodeling. “We had to put in all new wiring, plumbing—everything is new except for the ceiling.”
Debbie and Robyn had a lot of different ideas about how they wanted their restaurant to look, although “none of those actually came to fruition,” Debbie admits. In the end, they just let the space design itself. “It’s kind of an eclectic mix of both Robyn and myself. We love to shop. We love to find unique things,” Debbie says. The result is a colorful little space with a pressed tin ceiling, chandeliers, and brightly painted mirrors that match the brightly colored Fiesta dinnerware. There’s even a giant painting of a rooster on the wall. “I’ve always liked roosters,” she says.
After more than a year of work, 34:Ate finally opened in September 2014 and quickly developed a loyal following among Williamson lunchgoers. “A lot of it is just things I’ve made my whole life. I’ve cooked my whole life and come from a long line of good cooks,” Debbie says. The menu features standard fare like BLTs and club sandwiches but also offers upscaled dishes like the “grown-up bologna” sandwich, which features thick-sliced fried bologna with onions, lettuce, and your choice of mustard or chipotle mayo. One of the most popular dishes is the poppy seed salad, which contains mixed greens, seasonal fruit, candied nuts, feta cheese, and the restaurant’s popular poppy seed dressing.
In addition to its regular lunch menu, 34:Ate also hosts regular pop- up dinners to attract diners outside the regular lunch crowd. There’s no schedule for the dinners—“Just whenever we feel like it,” Debbie says—but the events always take on a specific theme. The restaurant has hosted a hamburger night, an Italian night, “South of the Border” night, and a night of Southern favorites with chicken and waffles, a meatloaf sandwich, mac and cheese, corn on the cob, pecan pie, and key lime bread pudding. “Very Southern, low country-type food,” Debbie says.
She says she had no idea how much work running a restaurant would be—it can be both physically and emotionally exhausting. But the experience has taught Debbie something about herself. After all those years in the classroom, the thing she likes most is feeding people. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.” 34:ate, 210 Pike Street, Williamson, WV 25661, 304.235.3488, 34atewilliamson.wix.com/34ate
photographed by NIKKI BOWMAN