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2023 Sep

Irwin's Pharmacy: Cheap & Tasty

Old-fashioned lunch counters are alive and well in Tidewater.

The other day, while tooling down Indian River Road in Chesapeake, I embarked on an archeological excursion of sorts. The stretch I scoped out sports aging strip shopping centers, the old-school Beasley’s Farm Market and Wicker’s Crab Pot, circa 2008, a delicious restaurant with lineage going back generations.

What I was after, though, was far more aged and nearly extinct: a lunch counter, this one at Irwin’s Pharmacy and Fountain, circa 1934.

Tidewater once boasted many lunch counters. As a kid, I used to share banana splits with my mom at the one at Rose’s in Western Branch. The counter matron would pluck a balloon from a string above our heads, pinch the end, and pop it to reveal the price of the concoction between her fingers.

Once it said five cents.

These were places where the counter stools twirled, prices hung low, and menu mainstays were egg salad, ice cream sundaes, and stretchy grilled cheese sandwiches.

You’ll still find those staples on Irwin’s fountain menu. And the old school vibe abounds in the scribbley Formica countertop and the red Naugahyde booths. The counter stools twirl, albeit with a well-earned squeak.

But the menu is surprisingly diverse with she crab soup ($5.99 a cup), Cubano sandwiches ($8.99), and hot fried flounder sandwiches ($5.99) among others.

After snagging a pair of the 13 coveted stools at the counter, my sidekick and I were momentarily mesmerized by the behind-the-counter synchronization of the five cooks, all moving fluidly and efficiently to send orders out quickly. And smiling, too.

Stunned by the low prices, Chris and I decided to go on all the rides, sampling as many items as our bellies allowed, starting with a 32-ounce lemonade ($4.59) packed with crushed ice in a styrofoam cup. Irwin’s menu touts that they’ve been “Squeezin ‘Em Fresh since 1934.”

We watched as our server, Shaka Butts, did just that, loading hemispheres of fresh lemons onto a crusher to make the summer refresher. It had just the right balance of tart to sweet. Next time, we’ll try the limeade.

Our first entree choice, a hot fried flounder sammie ($5.99!) had unfortunately hit the 86 list by the time we arrived just past the noon lunch rush. No worries. A chalkboard high above the guts of the galley kitchen touted, to our surprise, a crab cake sandwich ($7.99!). With a price like that, our expectations were muted. Yet, this house-made, packed-with-crab patty hung out of the bun. It had been flattened on the flattop grill and cooked to golden brown and could best many a crabcake sandwich that we’ve eaten at twice the price. And this one came snugged into a paper-lined basked with a big pile of crinkle-cut fries and a dill pickle spear.

Onward, then, to the Philly Cheesesteak ($7.49), pure comfort food—a lightly charred bun mounded with chunks of beef in a silky cheesy sauce with a uniform concasse of onions, green pepper, and tomato.

Our “all the rides” sensibility led us to then order the she-crab soup. The thick porridge has been a perennial and rightful favorite in the annual East Coast She Crab Soup Classic competition at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. Served in a warm white cup, this sherried version is so thick that a spoon can stand upright amid the ample snags of stringy crab. And it’s served steamy hot. Put this on your fall checklist.

After scraping up the last bit of soup, we wondered: dessert? It’s hard to turn down a $6.99 banana split, but we did . . . and then ordered a brownie sundae ($5.99) from the waitress who had assumed we only had room for a check.

Once again, Shaka got to work topping a warm block of fudge brownie with two softball-sized mounds of vanilla ice cream. She finished the dish with a four-corner flourish of whipped topping and a scribble of chocolate sauce across the ice cream. This one is for the super-sweet loving crowd.

Even after a short stroll through the pharmacy proper, past the vast wine offerings, the bait locker, the arcade games, and actual pharmacists, there was no room to sample other rarities on the menu such as the egg creams ($3.49), the cherry fizz ($2.69), or the malts and milkshakes ($4.99). Or that Cubano sandwich ($8.99) or the Diner Dogs ($4.49).

For those, we’ll be back.

Lorraine Eaton

Lorraine Eaton, former Staff Epicure at the Virginian-Pilot, is co-author of the “Food Lover’s Guide to Virginia,” and author of “Tidewater Table,” a local bestseller. She has won numerous state and national writing awards, and her work has been included in “Best Food Writing,” an annual anthology of the best American work in the genre. Lorraine has a daughter, Peyton, who is attending university. She resides in Virginia Beach.

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