Tucked away about three miles south of U.S. 460, near the old New London Dragstrip, the New London Steak House has been drawing a steady stream of repeat customers for 50 years now.
For Jackie Tucker, a Lynchburg resident, the steakhouse not only has been a place to order a great filet and spiced steamed shrimp, it has been a source of fellowship and friendship since she starting going there in 1979, 10 years after it opened.
Tucker meets eight to 15 friends each week at the establishment, celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and just everyday life together.
“It’s beyond just meeting new people,” she said. “We’ve become good friends and the restaurant is the reason why. You can just go in and be who you are.”
Tucker even had her first date there with her husband, Gary, 25 years ago.
The rustic, dimly lit steakhouse is known for its relaxed, down-home, friendly atmosphere as well as steak filet cooked on a charcoal grill.
When owners Shirley Hartman and her late husband, Bob, purchased the circa-1938 building off Virginia 709, the steakhouse previously was known as Wilburn’s Country Store and had sat vacant for eight years.
According to a 1991/1992 edition of the Virginia Historical Chronicle, the country store was the center of the community and a place where residents and travelers alike were welcome.
“Today New London House, located in the Forest area’s original country store … still offers old- fashioned friendly service,” it states.
The Hartmans, including their sons Keith, who is both a cook and manager, and Wayne, who died two years ago, worked hard to bring customers in at a time when only one car would traverse the road every 45 minutes.
Though Smith Mountain Lake had been completed in 1963, Shirley Hartman said it wasn’t until many years later it became a tourist destination and people would begin using Virginia 709 to get to the lake.
Keith Hartman was just 11 years old when his parents decided to open the restaurant. He said it’s ironic to look back on because he does just about everything to make the show run today, but would sit out front with nothing to do as a child.
“Because [there] wasn’t anything for me to do, because they were working to fix it up, and I’d sit on a milk crate in the front and wait for somebody to come by so I could wave, and sometimes it’d be 40 minutes before I’d see a car,” he said.
Initially the restaurant only opened on Friday and Saturday nights and would serve about 20 people. They did this for 19 years before moving to Wednesday through Sunday nights. Now it’s not unusual for the restaurant to bring in 400 customers in one Saturday night.
“Back then, we depended on word of mouth because we couldn’t afford advertising,” Shirley Hartman said. “We didn’t even have heating or air conditioning.”
Keith Hartman said he would wrap one box of potatoes — which held 80 potatoes — every two weeks.
“If that even,” he said. “It might be three weeks to a month a box of potatoes would last. Now I go through 12 boxes of potatoes during the week now.”
Initially Shirley and Bob Hartman were looking to buy a lake house, Keith Hartman said, but when his father drove past the site of the current restaurant, he knew it was the perfect spot.
“I saw this country store just sitting here and I thought, ‘I’ll make this come alive,’” Bob Hartman said in a 1991 article in The News & Advance. “It was always my dream to open up a restaurant.”
Shirley Hartman saw things a little differently.
“He saw a future. She saw a big bonfire,” Keith said.
When they opened, they used fresh vegetables from their garden and recipes, handed down from Bob Hartman’s father, a cook. The menu only offered steak, potatoes and French fries.
Beside a new addition of the veranda and outside porch to make way for more customers and the addition of a larger kitchen, much of New London Steak House remains as it did 50 years ago.
Thanks to customers who have brought in various farm antiques over the years, the Hartmans automatically had the décor of the restaurant provided. Items hanging from the walls include shotguns, antique horse collars, hand saws, banjos, driftwood, a vintage washboard and in the main dining room, an old wood-fired stove used to keep the restaurant warm during winters before heating and air was installed. The tables in the main dining room are all old phone cable reels, and the floors are made of leftovers from old pool table tops cut in the wrong size by Georgia-Pacific.
“To most people, it’s just junk,” Bob Hartman said in the 1991 The News & Advance article. “But anything we could find on the property we kept, and we ended up saving a lot of money.”
Over the years, because of inflation, the menu prices have increased so a 12-ounce ribeye steak costs $26.95, but on its first menu it only would have cost customers a whopping $4 in 1969 dollars. They could add on an ice cream sundae for dessert for only 55 cents.
Another increase is the number of photographs pinned to a corkboard near the bar and cash register. Shirley and Keith Hartman continue to hang news clipping about customers and endless photographs of beloved employees and guests dining at the restaurant from over the years. Actor Erik Estrada’s photo hangs on the wall from a visit he had at the steakhouse.
Ethel Merman, an American actress and singer known as the “first lady of the musical comedy stage,” even graced the steakhouse several years before her death in 1984.
Until the 1980s, the restaurant served beer and wine but allowed customers to bring in their own liquor. When New London began serving its own liquor, the business took off, Keith Hartman said.
“It was an overnight success when we started having liquor,” he said.
Keith Hartman said he really doesn’t know how much money the business generates but simply said, the Hartmans aren’t “money people.”
“So we spend it in the business, we put it in everything we got,” he said.
Today, the Hartmans see customers ride motorcycles in from Charlotte, North Carolina, just to have some steak, potatoes and salad from the now well-known salad bar, which Keith Hartman said guests “tear up.”
He said they love it for the county-style, simple, relaxed atmosphere and the lack of white tablecloths and pretentious service.
Margaret Walton celebrated her 92nd birthday at New London Steak House with her family a few weeks ago, but it definitely wasn’t the first celebration she had experienced at the restaurant.
Walton, who lives just 10 minutes away on Virginia 24, probably has been the longest-running customer of the restaurant, coming around sometimes three days a week for 50 years.
She remembers sitting in the main dining room in the winters while the now-antique wood-fired stove burned embers to keep guests warm.
“It’s very cozy and warm,” she said. “You hardly ever go there and don’t know so many people. It’s always a nice, fun place to go.”
Keith Hartman loves his job. Whether he’s fixing a creaky door, greeting customers and friends, cooking up a steak in the back or kneading dough for dinner rolls, he comes into work every day fulfilling his father’s legacy.
“His dream was for this place to be big because people love to eat and for it to be passed down to each generation and just keep it going,” he said with water filling his eyes. “We’ve watched kids, little babies, grow up, we’ve watched them graduate. I’ve watched kids grow up and now they have kids.”
Whether New London Steak House welcomes a brand-new customer inside its doors or a customer like Walton who is visiting for the millionth time, Keith Hartman said he wants them to leave everything they have on their heart and mind at the door.
“It’s not so much about the food, it’s about the fellowship over everybody,” he said.
Rachael Smith covers local businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at (434) 385-5482.