The culinary skills and legacy of the former owner of Hillsville’s iconic Diner, Mac McPeak were honored at Hillsville Town Council’s May 22 meeting. Just like his last day at the beloved dining car, the room was packed. McPeak and his wife Valerie were presented an engraved barbecue set, courtesy of Thomas Automation Management (TAM) LLC, of Woodlawn.
McPeak worked his last day March 22 before turning the restaurant over to new owners Bobby and Cindy Bradbury. His retirement followed more than six decades of family ownership of the restaurant. McPeak took over the Hillsville Diner in 1983 after the retirement of his father, Dempsey, who had previously run the restaurant since 1966. Dempsey’s older brother, Roy, operated the business before that since the early 1950s.
Manufactured as a Jerry O’Mahony diner in the late 1920s, the Hillsville Diner originally opened in Hillsville in 1946. Before that, the diner was in Mount Airy, N.C. from 1940-1946. Manufactured in New York, McPeak believes it probably operated somewhere in the northern U.S. before coming to Mount Airy. The 61-year old McPeak’s philosophy was as straightforward as his fare – good service and good food for what became a loyal base of generations of customers.
“I kind of feel like I’m in the diner right now with everyone packed in here. I remember my first experience there when I was a little boy. We were getting ready to go on vacation. It was still dark outside and my dad said why don’t we go up to the diner to eat,” recalled Councilman Greg Yonce. “I was grumpy but when I had Mac’s pancakes I was fine. I can’t remember having a meal there that I didn’t enjoy. Mac, we just appreciate all that you and your family have done for the County over the decades. It’s good to have a business like this in a small community that you can be proud of and that you can tell people, hey, we have the diner. I have actually had people when I’m out of town, learn I’m from Hillsville and tell me they remember eating at the diner. Other than the Flea Market I think the diner has been one of the greatest attractions we’ve had. Hopefully it will continue to be an attraction for the town.”
Yonce recognized Ricky Thomas and Michael Shockley of TAM for their work on a professional grilling set engraved with Mac’s name. The wooden keepsake box housing the cooking implements was also embossed with a decorative metal plate and engraved to honor the long-time restaurateur.
“It is amazing to watch a man with only two opposible thumbs crack four eggs at the same time,” said Councilman Ed Terry. “Thank you Mac for what you’ve done for the town. Though the Hillsville Diner has always been all McPeak it is bigger than you and thank you for making provision for it to continue. I enjoyed many meals there and a lot of good fellowship with folks. Occasionally I lag back and join the breakfast club there. We’ll miss you. Most people didn’t understand when they came in for a meal at noon and you’d greet them with a warm response that you’d been there since two in the morning to be sure they had good food.”
Councilman David Young said he moved to the area from Texas in 1971. He said one of the first places he ate at was the Diner.
“I loved this town so much I Jjust went back and said I’ve had enough of Texas, I’m going back to Virginia,” said Young. “It just amazed me how I could go in and watch your dad at that point crack eggs, talk with people, take orders and never take anything down while cooking. Those pancakes were awesome. You’re an icon for this town and I very much appreciate what you have done. You’ve done an amazing job here in Hillsville.”
Mayor Gregory Crowder told the group he started eating at the diner when he was three. He pointed out Mac didn’t only feed him but served as his football coach. Crowder said when he was nine years old that team went undefeated.
“Mac, my family at the Diner every Thursday, Friday and Saturday and we watched the transition as everybody got older and the next one took over,” said Crowder. “I had the same thing every time. Country ham. Two eggs over easy. A full order of hotcakes and two orders of gravy. You can ask Mac. I’ve cut back.”
MePeak smiled and said Crowder had cut back because the last time he ate there he didn’t have gravy. Crowder said there were two things people know Hillsville for, the “trolley car” and the Flea Market.
“Mac didn’t know it but he started our downtown revitalization a long time ago,” Crowder said. “It was good you saw it needed to go on. It would have been so easy to just close it and walk out the door. The new owners seem to be good people and we hope they’ll be successful like you are. We all from the bottom of our hearts appreciate you for feeding us and being our friend. The Diner was more than a place to eat. It was a meeting place.”
McPeak’s response before a round of applause by those attending was “We appreciate your business. We are just glad to be a part of a great town.”
David Broyles may be reached at 276-779-4013 or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave.