It feels like home.
That’s the only way to describe Charlie & Litsa’s South Main Cafe in Culpeper.
Walking into the quaint dining room one Friday morning, I was greeted by Charlie Kambanellos with a hearty “sit down, eat.”
While it’s the food that brings the customers in originally, it’s the camaraderie that keeps them coming back.
It’s a small, intimate space. Approximately 26 chairs fit in the diner - a few tables lining the back wall and a bar with nine seats - situated right behind Charlie and the grill.
It never feels cramped - mostly because Charlie introduces everyone.
It feels like family.
Charlie and LItsa’s has been a Culpeper institution for 22 years. He smiles proudly when he says that April 7, 2020 will be 23 years in town. Now 80, Charlie hasn’t slowed a step.
He’ll proudly tell you that he’s been in the restaurant business for 50 years - in Fairfax, Orange and now in Culpeper. His eyes sparkle as he says the oldest diner in Culpeper besides Baby Jim’s - a fact he’s quite proud of.
He doesn’t advertise - he doesn’t need to. He points to the stars on his door and mentions how people find him online. Once they come in - they’re family.
“I have new customers every day - from Chicago, New York, Boston - I try my best,” Charlie says in his trademark Greek accent. “I make homemade food, I talk to the customers, be happy.”
The restaurant is the couple’s happy place.
Litsa beams with pride when she’s told that it’s the best breakfast in town.
“I open my heart and my door to everybody,” she said. “We’re for everybody - rich or poor. I love people - it’s my family. There’s no customers, it’s family.
“This is my happy place,” Litsa said.
Now 72, she has the same daily routine. She wakes at 4:30 a.m. and works until they go to bed. They stay busy all day at the diner - staying open till 1 p.m. and then preparing for the next day.
Potatoes need peeled, sausage needs ground, onions need chopped.
Then, she goes home to tend to her garden and clean her house. She doesn’t like to sit - she likes staying busy.
It’s a work ethic that shines through in their food - and their customer service.
“If you don’t love people they don’t come in,” Litsa said. “I love everybody.”
And everybody loves Charlie and Litsa.
On a recent morning, a table of regulars jokes with Charlie as he asks where Effie is.
Effie Foster is there almost every day. Known as the “pie lady” of Culpeper, she holds court nearly every morning at the diner. This morning, she’s missing. She’s in Charlottesville celebrating the birth of her great grandson. It’s one of the few days she misses. Now 86, she still helps herself to coffee and makes her rounds talking to other customers.
Her stepson Don Foster said it’s just like sitting down at home for breakfast.
“I like these little hole in the wall places,” Don Foster said. “I used to like Gayhearts. I like to see the person handling the food.”
Charlie never writes down an order. A mind like a steel trap, he remembers every order and immediately heads to the grill - often singing to himself.
That’s the other part his customers love - when you come to Charlie and Litsa’s it’s not just breakfast - it’s a show.
Sometimes it’s Diana. Other times it’s Country Road Take Me Home. Other times its classics like ‘Solo Mio.’ No matter the song, it’s always sung with love.
“My favorite thing is probably his omelete, I get one with everything in it,” Mira Sudderth said.
“I’m a bacon and egg person,” Don Foster said. “I’ve never had anything bad here.”
Born and raised in Remington, Don Foster said Charlie and Litsa’s is a “throwback.” The diner harkens back to a simpler time - when Culpeper had a slower pace and you sat down for breakfast instead of stopping at a fast food joint.
“You don’t get that in places, the personality they’ve got,” Don Foster said.
A regular named James sits at the end of stools, working on his breakfast. He’s been coming for more than 20 years. He first showed up with his children and now they’re grown - but he keeps returning three days a week for breakfast.
“I just like vintage diners like this,” he said. “The service is always the same - good.”
Sometimes, James will join in with Charlie in song. It’s just like family.
“I come for advice,” James said.
I asked James if Charlie has become like a father figure to him, “like a grandfather figure,” James answers as the restaurant bursts out in laughter.
Charlie grins and breaks into song.
His favorite? “I like Lay Your Head on My Pillow by Ray Price,” he says.
Everett Corbin has been coming every other day for 22 years - Charlie warns him he’s going to be gone for a couple of days visiting his granddaughter in Tennessee.
“I saw this little restaurant years and years ago and I said ‘I’m going to try this place out,’ I’ve been coming here ever since,” Corbin said. “I’ve tried everything and it’s all fantastic. He knows what you want before you even say anything. I come up here from Warrenton to eat. There’s a lot of restaurants up in Warrenton, but I want to come to Charlie’s.”
Charlie points at another customer - “he wants a sausage,” he says as the man sits down.
Corbin waves and laughs.
“That man can cook,” Corbin said.
He’s also generous.
“Charlie’s a good guy, if you have no money in your pocket he’ll fix your food and you can pay him later,” Corbin said.
Charlie smiles, he gets a lot of lawyers and judges during the week he said.
“Judge Summerville comes by, he says I’m a good man, do a good job,” Charlie said. “Everybody knows me.”
Charlie calls everyone friend. He also rarely forgets an order.
“18 orders,” he says with pride. “One day it was full, I know everyone’s order.”
Married 46 years, Charlie and Litsa work smoothly as a team. He whips up the food, she delivers it - it’s a quiet connection they have.
“We do things together, we know how to talk,” Charlie said.
Chastity Woodward has been bringing her daughter Gianna in for years. What attracted them originally was the food - but once they met the delightful Greek couple that motive changed.
“It’s them 100 percent,” Chastity said. “The food is amazing but they are so welcoming and they know us when we come in the door.”
Gianna loves that Charlie used to give her Blow Pops - but only if she would finish her breakfast.
“You come in here and it’s family,” Chastity said. “We circled town a few times today for a spot to open up because it was so full. This is where we wanted to be.”
Culpeper County West Fairfax Supervisor Gary Deal is a regular - he calls Charlie and Litsa’s one of his favorite places to go in Culpeper.
“It’s motivating for me to see the pride that Charlie and Litsa take to make sure their customers are happy,” Deal said.
Robert Hawkins remembers the diner from when he was younger. He used to come in when he was 16 and 17 late at night. He moved away from Culpeper in 1966 and returned in the last few years.
“It’s really changed,” he said of the town.
What hasn’t changed in 22 years - is Charlie and Litsa’s.