By Stephanie Tipple, Contributing Writer
Hard Times Café was created more than three decades ago by brothers Fred and Jim Parker. According to the company website, the two were carrying on a family legacy: Grandfather Ira Goodfellow learned to make chili from a Texas chuck wagon cook at the turn of the 20th century, and his daughter, “Aunt Irma,” followed in his footsteps, operating a chili parlor in rural Oklahoma.
As adults in the Washington, DC area, the Parker brothers found themselves drawn to their roots, opening their own chili parlor- themed restaurant, the ﬁrst Hard Times, in Old Town Alexandria in 1980. Over the years, the brothers found success that led to the opening of additional locations and eventually to franchising the business. More than 15 Hard Times can now be found across Maryland and Virginia. Each of the locations has a unique feel, and Hard Times Café has become synonymous with a friendly and casual dining experience. Locally, you can ﬁnd a Hard Times at Potomac Mills Circle in Woodbridge and on Sudley Road in Manassas. Both of the Prince William-area locations are co- owned by Chris McNulty and Randy Barnette.
Four types of chili, with or without a bed of spaghetti, are served: ground beef-based Texas chili, sweeter tasting Cincinnati chili, spicier Terlingua and vegetarian chili with soy ﬂakes. According to the menu, these are “historically correct versions of the chili created on turn-of-the-century cattle drives of the Southwest and in the Cincinnati Chili parlors of the Midwest.” The menu has been expanded to include a variety of Southwestern-inspired appetizers along with wings, burgers, sandwiches and salads. Start oﬀ with standard fare like grilled chicken quesadillas or loaded fries, or mix it up a bit with Santa Fe egg rolls or deep fried pickles. Diners can also treat themselves to larger entrees such as grilled salmon, ribs or a New York strip steak.
“We have a wide variety of American fare—best wings in the area. We are rolling out the new taco platter, we’d love for everybody to come in and try that,” said Todd Koegler, general manager at the Hard Times in Woodbridge, of the menu oﬀerings.
Buﬀalo native and Lake Ridge resident Ann Sonnenberger gives a thumbs-up to the juicy chicken wings that go on special each Wednesday night. “They have some of the tastiest wings in Northern Virginia. The chili lime is my favorite,” she said.
Hard Times manages to be a family-friendly dining establishment and a fun place to hang out with friends, shooting pool, viewing sporting events, enjoying live music or even playing a competitive game of Rock Band. “We have a great family atmosphere in our dining room; a sports atmosphere on our cue side,” said Koegler. “Live entertainment every Friday and Saturday night, with live DJ’s and bands.” Children also eat free on Sundays.
“They have the best on-tap beer selection in Woodbridge for sure,” said Dale City resident Dave Brown. He added that a few years ago he was unable to travel home to celebrate Christmas with his family and did not want to spend the holiday alone. Hard Times was one of the few places open. “I had a good time that night and was relieved to ﬁnd them open. Everybody was very welcoming,” said Brown.
Both Prince William locations have a full event schedule, with activities and food specials oﬀered every day of the week. For instance, Thursdays in Woodbridge feature water pong and cornhole tournaments along with $5.99 boneless wings. On Fridays, customers can boogie the night away during the DJ Dance Party at the Manassas location. A full listing of nightly events and specials can be found at www.hardtimes.com, under “locations.”
Customers can also host their own party or event at Hard Times, renting space and choosing from group dining options such as party platters or a chili buﬀet. The Woodbridge and Manassas locations can each accommodate up to 300 guests. McNulty recommends booking well in advance. “We have a banquet room upstairs, which lends itself to be booked out during the holiday season. Usually it starts getting full around the end of October and then sometimes goes straight through till March,” he said.
Another option is to take the Hard Times party home. Both of the Prince William-area locations oﬀer catering, available for delivery or pick-up.
Having sampled many of the items on the menu, this author’s personal favorite is the taco salad with Texas chili. Whatever your choice, the mix of friendly service, tasty food and fun served up at Hard Times make both area locations well worth a visit.
Stephanie Tipple is a college student, journalist and community leader. She resides in Woodbridge and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.