See You at The Curve!
Iconic establishment on the mountain serves up a one-of-a-kind experience
By Jennifer Lee
If walking into the Horseshoe Curve restaurant feels like you’re walking into someone’s living room, that’s because you are. Tracee and Jim Wink have been welcoming friends and not-for-long strangers into their cozy, colorful restaurant and bar, serving up simple, tasty food, drinks, and tunes on the first floor of their home for 25 years.
Sitting just inside the U-shaped turn on old Route 7 in Pine Grove, “The Curve” has been in operation since 1946, when Tracee’s grandfather Bob McClaughry bought it from George Bell for $5,000 on the GI bill after returning home from World War II. He and his wife Faye raised two daughters there in a 1-bedroom apartment attached to the restaurant, bar, grocery, and gas station—the room that now serves as Jim Wink’s office. “I don’t know how they did it,” Tracee says, shaking her head, “but they did.”
Tracee, too, grew up in the since-expanded home/meeting place, and has lived there all her life. She remembers as a child seeing, “these mountain people comin’ up over the hill on foot” to do their shopping and mingling. By the time she was 13 in the mid ‘70s, she was not only helping in the kitchen and greeting the customers, but entertaining them as well. “I didn’t go to the prom or much of anything else. I had too much fun playing right here,” Tracee remembers.
“I took guitar and singing lessons from the time I was around 5. I grew up thinking that I’d be a professional musician,” she muses. “Come Friday nights, some old gentlemen from Bluemont (Lou Allen Robey on Guitar and George Reed on bass, among others) would come sit at this table, and we’d play for tips,” she says, tapping on the table where we’re sitting. Some 40 years later, a myriad of musical acts come through on weekend nights, still playing just for tips.
When Route 7 was expanded to bypass Pine Grove, around 1973, Tracee remembers her grandfather being very concerned it would dramatically hurt the business. “It didn’t affect it at all. We’ve always been a word-of-mouth kind of place and, by then, were pretty well established,” she said.
When Mr. McClaughry died in 1987, Tracee’s stepfather suggested she take it over until her grandmother could sell it. “I remember some old guy saying ‘That little girl can’t run this place.’ I don’t know who it was, but I remember hearing it, and I figure that’s what convinced me to do it.”
Petite and pretty as she may be, it is clear that Tracee Wink is no shrinking violet. Her husband’s favorite modeling picture of her, taken some time ago and among many framed on the wall of his office, is of a glamorous, big-haired gal proudly toting a large rifle. Just as glamorous now, her sweetly raspy voice and sparkling smile are reason enough to visit the establishment.
Jim Wink must have thought so when he stepped in there in 1987 while with the Secret Service doing a project at Mount Weather. “We went on one real date,” Tracee said, explaining that every other “date” was spent at the restaurant, where she has worked six days a week for most of the last 30 years. Ten months after meeting, Jim and Tracee were married in May 1988. They celebrated their 25th anniversary this year. “We always say we wish we had a place like this to go on our days off,” Tracee laughed.
They bought Horseshoe Curve from Tracee’s grandmother that same year, keeping a Clarke County institution alive and well. Any changes they’ve made since then have been gradual, “really just adding a feminine touch, I guess,” Tracee says. They added wine to the drink menu, “and some fancy stuff with the meals,” Jim added. In addition to their popular cheeseburger with homemade fries, diners can get grilled ham and cheese, seafood specials, homemade soups, and other daily specials—most all of which Tracee cooks up herself.
The clientele has changed a bit over the years, too. “We used to have a lot of government people through here,” Jim said, referring to Mount Weather’s operations just up the hill on Route 601. Since many of those employees, namely FEMA, have moved to Winchester, some of that crowd has waned, though Jim sees a resurgence in the near future. He adds that ten years ago customers came from a defined local radius, but now many more are coming from Loudoun County and beyond.
The décor of the place is notable for its rich assortment of funny signs, figurines, tchotchkes, and old photographs, one of which shows a young Tracee posing with her tot-sized guitar. A neatly organized bulletin board holds dozens of customers’ business cards. Artifacts from Jim’s distinguished career with the CIA, Secret Service, and other government agencies that led him all over the world are interspersed throughout the place. Old-fashioned lanterns hang over the small wooden bar and colored Christmas lights line the ceiling. There is enough eye candy in one room to keep you entertained for hours.
The Curve also seems to have special powers when it comes to finding romance for its customers. “When people meet here, they stay together,” Tracee said. “We’ve had many engagements here—and a wedding.”
“And almost a baby!” Jim adds, remembering a woman who went into labor in the restaurant’s bathroom before the emergency squad arrived just in time to whisk her to the hospital.
Music became a major part of The Curve experience about ten years ago when a friend’s 14-year-old daughter started playing guitar on occasional weekend nights. Now, you can find excellent local and regional musicians on Friday and Saturday nights—and some Thursdays—playing a variety of genres, from rock and roll to bluegrass to blues and country.
“We are now booking through December 2014,” Tracee said, giving evidence of the place’s popularity with the performers, especially considering their only monetary compensation is based on the generosity of their listeners. “They say it’s their favorite place to play. Many of them call it The Bluebird Café of Virginia,” referring to the famed Nashville venue. “We have a band coming from Boston on October 10 who said they were told they HAD to play here. We don’t go out looking for bands, they just seem to find us.”
The size and character of The Curve makes the listening experience particularly intimate. There is no stage, and between sets musicians usually sit down with the audience. It’s also been a great training ground for young performers, many brought by their instructor Todd McDonald, Clarke County’s own guitar-teaching traveling gypsy who just played at The Curve last month. “He brought a 5-year-old drum player here one time,” Jim said.
On Tuesday nights, Tracee and a few of her friends—Richard “Duke” Huber on accordion and harmonica, Jimmy Haile on bass, Phil Jones on guitar and banjo, and Tracee on guitar and mandolin—gather to sing and play “mostly old hippie music and alternative country: Grateful Dead, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, stuff like that,” Tracee said.
Tracee and Jim pretty much do it all at The Curve. They have one part-time guy who helps in the kitchen. “And the locals pitch in, take out the trash, help whenever we need it,” Jim said. “And I do whatever my wife wants me to do.”
That attitude of neighbor helping neighbor is prevalent among members of the Horseshoe Curve Benevolent Association (HSCBA), a nonprofit charitable organization the Winks formed in 1998. Their fundraising efforts began before then, in 1993. “There were two real bad fires up here on the mountain that year, and we wanted to do something to support the Blue Ridge Fire and Rescue folks,” Jim said. They raised $1,400 in that first fundraiser, and the Blue Ridge Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company 8 has become the backbone of their charitable efforts since then, Jim added.
Since then, the HSCBA has raised over $350,000 for charities from Winchester to Purcellville, from animal shelters to children’s programs to an annual $1,000 scholarship given to a Clarke County High School graduate who has had perfect attendance during their school years. “We didn’t want to get into having to pick, so this way the recipient picks him or herself,” Tracee said.
In January, the HSCBA hosts a Polar Plunge in the Shenandoah River to raise money to send needy kids to sports camp for a week. This year, the event raised enough funds to send eight kids to camp. In June, the restaurant hosts a big party for the Blue Ridge Fire and Rescue, complete with silent and live auctions, barbecue, fire truck rides, and live music. In October, HSCBA hosts a Police Appreciation dinner. In November, the organization sponsors a dance at the Blue Ridge fire hall; this year a raffle of a sapphire ring and a helicopter ride will raise funds to help purchase a much-needed and very expensive new ambulance for Company 8. At Christmastime, HSCBA members prepare and serve lunch to the residents of the Johnson-Williams apartments in Berryville. Various other events and efforts are spread throughout the year, making the HSCBA a well-known and well-loved group of locals having fun while helping others in this area.
So if you’re looking for a juicy cheeseburger, a friendly smile, great music, and a cold beer, you won’t find a more authentic and welcoming place than The Curve. “There’s no article or description that can properly convey the experience of The Curve,” one Clarke County resident and Horseshoe Curve fan said. “You just have to go there.”
Horseshoe Curve restaurant is located in Pine Grove at 1162 Pine Grove Road. Hours are noon to 11pm, Tuesday-Thursday, noon to 2am Friday and Saturday, and noon to 7pm on Sunday. Phone is 540-554-8291.