By Olivia Overman
When Nelson Head moved from his native Alabama in the early 1980s to open a restaurant on Capitol Hill, he soon came to realize that serving burgers and salads was not the type of atmosphere he could put his heart into. Though happy to rub shoulders with congressmen and others while in D.C., what he really wanted to create was a southern-style restaurant featuring the hearty foods he and his family had been cooking for generations.
After a search of the metropolitan area, he happened upon an available space in Woodbridge, just off Route 1, and his dream of opening a place specializing in old-fashioned barbecue soon came to fruition. Twenty years later, his restaurant, Dixie Bones, is still going strong.
“We serve the whole spectrum of people, from construction workers, to lawyers, to doctors. But the nice part about southern food is that it has a lot of loyal customers,” Head said.
What’s on the Menu
Many places try their hand at barbecue, but Head’s southern style has customers coming back again and again. “Our ribs are what we are known for,” he said. Using his mother’s recipe, “the ribs are served with collard greens and coleslaw or whatever side you decide upon. This is the item that transcends regional boundaries.”
“We make everything ourselves,” Head added, “with beef and pork allowed to cook all night, while ribs, chicken and sides cook all day long.” Pork, chicken, sausage and beef BBQ, as well as ribs, are smoked on site, and are available in entree portions and as sandwiches for anybody seeking smaller portions.
For those who like their taters, Dixie Bones’ giant stuffed potatoes are the way to go. Diners can get them filled with heaping mounds of pork, chicken, beef or sausage, along with toppings such as sour cream, chives and cheese. Vegetarians aren’t left out; there is also a meatless loaded option. Of course, it wouldn’t be a southern restaurant
without serving fried catfish, cornbread, mac n’ cheese, beans, coleslaw and “muddy spuds” (finely chopped skin-on potatoes with cheese and onions)—all made and cooked fresh every day.
“We haven’t had anything here that we didn’t like,” said frequent diner Martha Walker of Woodbridge. “It’s good food with a good price.” Asked what her favorite menu choice was, she said, “I get the beef [stuffed]potato a lot of times with everything on the side…but the sausage is pretty much out of this world, too.”
To complement the food, four different kinds of sauces are offered at every table: one is a vinegar-based homemade recipe, two are tomato based and are great with chicken and beef. The fourth is a white sauce, native to Alabama, that “goes good on pulled chicken,” said Head. “Some people pour all four on the plate and mix it together while other people bring in their own sauces,” he noted. While Head does not mind people bringing in their own, his only caveat is that they let him try it.
All pies are baked fresh daily, in Dixie Bones’ separate kitchen a few blocks away, where much of the food is prepped. Make sure to learn which days your favorite pie is made. While you can always get chocolate, coconut and pecan, lemon pie is only made on Thursdays and sweet potato pie is a Saturday specialty. And yes, that is homemade whipped cream on top.
“My staff are dedicated to the recipes and the quality of the food and that is what sets us apart from chain restaurants,” said Head, who employs a team of 47 staffers.
Catering to a Wide Area
If you’re not passing through Woodbridge any time soon, or if you have a big gathering planned, Dixie Bones can bring the barbecue to you. The Washington Business Journal named it the 22nd largest caterer in the Washington Metro Area in 2014.
“I am very fortunate that barbecue lends itself to both sit down and take out,” said Head. “One third of my business is catering, and we cover from Baltimore to Richmond. This is what southern cooking is all about—taking the food to people’s houses.”
Dixie Bones covers small family gatherings with 24-hour notice, and can also feed thousands with more preparation time. “We can set up eight serving lines, serving out of 3,000 catering boxes,” said Head.
Regulars are likely to recognize event staff, made up of the restaurant’s employees. “The staff enjoy doing the events,” said Head. “I charge a service fee for the staff and they get 100 percent of it. It’s a lot of extra income for the staff.”
“We used to train with a dog company down here, All About Dogs, and anytime we had a big party we would order from here,” said Woodbridge resident Chris Johnson. “Because if we didn’t have Dixie Bones, everyone was a little grumpy.”
In addition to catering for family events and parties, Dixie Bones also offers seasonal specials for Thanksgiving and Christmas. “We do this to help out our regular guests: smoked turkeys, ham, smoked salmon, cranberry sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, turkey gravy and sausage dressing,” said Head.
Fredericksburg and Beyond
In May 2010, BBQ Post 401 opened in Fredericksburg as a satellite restaurant of Dixie Bones. It offers a similar menu, but throws in the additional southern delicacy of hush puppies. As for the future, Dixie Bones will grow “if a location lends itself to it,” said Head. “I want to give staff an opportunity to grow, and I believe they can do this by running another restaurant.” So keep your eyes (and noses) open for the next Dixie Bones, bringing southern barbecue to a neighborhood near you.
Dixie Bones is located at 13440 Occoquan Road, Woodbridge, and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Full menus and more can be found at dixiebones.com, and you can also join the Dixie Bones Lovers group on Facebook.
A graduate of American University’s School of Communication, Olivia Overman writes articles for online and print publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.