You wouldn’t expect to find a destination restaurant on a lonely stretch of highway in southwestern Virginia, but Cuz’s has been pleasing coal barons and college students with its “uptown” cuisine—and zany porcine décor—for 31 years.
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Michael J.N. Bowles
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Michael J.N. Bowles
Well traveled and well educated, shaggy-haired Mike Thompson doesn’t quite fit the profile of a guy who owns a restaurant in rural Tazewell County called Cuz’s Uptown Barbecue Cabins & Resort. Though he grew up on a nearby family farm, Thompson went to prep school in England and earned a degree in art history from Vanderbilt. A rube, he is not. He ran the farm for a few years, but says, bluntly, “I didn’t like working for, or with, my family.” During an overseas trip in the late 1970s, Thompson and his wife decided to open a barbeque and beer restaurant in southwestern Virginia—in a milk-bottling barn along Highway 460—and it’s been thriving ever since.
Thompson, who does not resist opportunities to display his wit, says the eatery’s name is a bit of a joke—there is no nearby town. But there are a couple of hand-hewn cedar cabins for folks who want to stay overnight in the area, and, more to the point, there is quality, uptown-style cuisine, not your ordinary country cooking. It’s the food that has made Cuz’s a hit with customers since it opened as a five-table honky-tonk in 1979. “The area really needed a good place to eat,” says Thompson. “We started with very high standards, and we’re basically an institution now. We don’t even hardly have a sign out front.”
Indeed, Cuz’s attracts everyone from college students to coal barons—especially on Saturday night, when there is live bluegrass music. Many customers drive an hour or more to partake of a menu that, like the restaurant, has expanded over the years and now features steaks, fish, even lobster snatched from the cold waters of Massachusetts, in addition to the barbeque. Steak filets are flown in from Iowa, fish from Hawaii. “Everything’s fresh, everything’s homemade,” says Thompson.
“The food is wonderful,” says Mike Hillman, a banker from nearby Lebanon and a Cuz’s regular. “We love the beef. We love the seafood.”
The décor is simple—lots of booths, most painted with bright colors. And there are scores of crazy-fun pig drawings on the booth backs and walls, some spray-painted and most from the hand of Thompson, who describes the interior as “colorfully eclectic.” Says he of his porcine predilection, “We’re a barbeque restaurant, and not to be big on pigs would be self-defeating.”
Cuz’s has survived two fires and come out of each incident a bigger place. The original dining room is now part of a kitchen stockroom. The eatery, open from March to November, can hold 225 guests downstairs and 60 more patrons upstairs. “For most people who come here,” says Thompson’s wife, Yvonne, a former journalist who was born in Hong Kong, “this is a destination restaurant.”
For more than 25 years, Thompson cooked in the kitchen. Now, he simply oversees the operation in “Pounding Thrill”—his clever name for Cuz’s community, Pounding Mill, about 15 minutes from Tazewell and 40 minutes from Burke’s Garden. “I’m still in charge of what things taste like,” he promises. “I don’t want people to do a whole lot of thinking about that."