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Tucked among the strip malls of northern Virginia, JV Restaurant is unassuming to say the least. Even if you're a long-time resident of the area, you might miss it altogether.
"We think of ourselves as Falls Church's little secret," says owner Lorraine Campbell. "I've had a lot of people come in here and say 'We've lived here 10 years and never knew you were here!'"
But the bar and grill has been around a lot longer than just a decade. Last month, JV Restaurant celebrated 65 years in business.
"My dad started JV's back in 1947 after the war," recalls Campbell. "This was the first strip mall outside of DC back in the '40s, and they were the first business to open in this strip mall."
And now, Campbell says it's the last business left from that era.
"The area itself has changed tremendously. Very corporate. And that's where we came up with our slogan in the '70s — Ageless charm without yuppie bastardization. But it has nothing to do with the clientele," Campbell quickly clarifies. "It has to do with all of the corporates that are coming in — your Ruby Tuesday's, your Chili's, your Applebee's. I can't compete with corporate. Either you're going to like us, or you're not going to like us."
One way JV's has set itself apart from the competition is its devotion to local live music.
"We've been having live music since the mid-'50s," says Campbell. "We started with mostly bluegrass. It all started with people sitting around a table. They'd bring their instruments in and start picking and playing. A little jam session."
That little jam session has grown significantly. The bar now features an eclectic mix of blues, bluegrass, country, and classic rock.
"Seven nights a week and twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday they've got an early show which I'm part of today," says Vernon Santmayer, a regular performer at JV's since 1980. "This will be the first gospel show we've ever had."
That's right. Vernon said he's performing gospel music today — in a dive bar. As we're finishing our conversation something bizarre, something truly magical, begins to happen. About 25 parishioners from Vernon's church show up and start to cram into the tiny room, eagerly awaiting the performance. The Santmayer Family Band doesn't disappoint, playing an energy-filled set of bluegrass and country gospel classics.
Halfway through the show I catch up with Pastor Billy Shepard, who led his congregation on the 30-mile trip to JVs from Woodbridge, Va.
"Sometimes we have to get out of the box so to speak and move out. I'm glad I could come," explains Pastor Shepard. "We have Sunday night church, but we just missed church tonight so that we could come up and enjoy the The Santmayer Family since they're kind of a part of our lives. A lot of us came up here and we're just thoroughly enjoying the music and even the atmosphere. It's a nice atmosphere in spite of it being a bar. Good gospel music fits anywhere."
Pastor Shepard gets it. JV's is more than just a drinking establishment and diner for regulars like Vernon Santmayer. It's a living room. It's a dinner table.
"I think it's very homey. Very comfortable. It's very low key," says owner Lorraine Campbell. "You don't have to dress up. Come as you are."
It's a place where friends and family gather to listen to music, watch sports, laugh, argue, and in some rare cases — praise and worship.
[Music: "I Can't Decide [Instrumental]" by Scissor Sisters from Ta-Dah]
Photos: JV Restaurant