The Hallowed Halls of Valhalla Restaurant
Danish FlairAugust 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Jacki Potorke
Some institutions have been around so long that anniversaries only suggest what otherwise is too difficult to conceive: a time before they were. Take Visalia’s Valhalla Restaurant, which, like its Norse mythological namesake, the heaven-like “hall of the fallen,” seems eternally etched upon the minds of its patrons. If you substitute coffee for mead, you’ve essentially got the same concept, excepting the whole perpetuity thing. But as hard as it may be for some Visalians to accept, Sept. 2 marks Valhalla’s 33rd anniversary, proving that once upon a time Valhalla simply was not, and every aebleskiver fix demanded a pilgrimage to Slovang.
It might be hard for some to believe, but not all. Just ask Kim Payne, who estimates she’s made about 53,000 pies during her tenure as Valhalla owner and chef. This seems like a monumental feat, except “anybody that does something that long is pretty quick at it. It becomes second nature,” says Payne.
So yes, she remembers – every aebleskiver, every pie – though even Payne wonders how 33 years passed so quickly. When Valhalla first opened its doors, Payne was only 21. Now, on the regular, she serves customers who are as old as the restaurant itself, and who’ve been dining at Valhalla since they were infants.
“You know, I don’t consider myself old, but I started young enough that I’ve seen kids born, leave, go to college, come back, get married, have their own kids, and now they’re coming to the Train Room,” says Payne. “I’ve seen the whole circle of life.”
Still, even after 33 years in the business, once in a while Payne gets a first-time guest, which seems impossible, considering Valhalla is one of Visalia’s oldest institutions.
“I’m sure we’re up there,” Payne guesses. “33 years ago, there were only six eating establishments downtown, so there was definitely a need. The timing was in our favor.”
“We didn’t even know how to spell restaurant,” laughs Payne, who says starting a restaurant was less competitive back then. “There are more than 60 restaurants now downtown… There was a lot of wiggle room back then for error. We just opened our doors and” – voilà – “we were a restaurant. Seriously, I didn’t go to culinary school, or anything like that.”
Theirs was a simple recipe for success. “Right off the bat we knew we wanted Danish flair,” says Payne. That meant Danish staples like medisterpolse, a spiced sausage, and aebleskiver, a round, doughy pancake-like ball served with jam. They included other Danish dishes on the menu, foods inspired by grandma’s recipes.
The second ingredient of the recipe was even simpler: hospitality. “Visalia is small enough that people still like to seek out the mom-and-pop restaurants,” says Payne.
“It brings me a lot of joy when people come in and enjoy their food, and I have their favorite pie for them,” says Payne. “This is a comfortable place when they’re having a bad day, when they need their hug.”
“We have singles that come that maybe were coming here for years and years and years, and then they lose their spouse, but still come here and get a hug and don’t feel by themselves,” she adds.
And while Payne says Valhalla has become a comfort to her customers, those customers have also become a comfort to Valhalla. Guests have become like family.
So in the spirit of hospitality, with true Danish flair, Valhalla plans to bring its anniversary celebration to the street outside its restaurant, where all will be welcome and aebleskivers will be for all.
On the Friday and Saturday of Labor Day weekend, from about 8 to 11 am, Payne will “set up a stove and make aebleskivers on the sidewalk, so that everybody that drives by or walks by or comes in gets a free aebleskiver.” Guests who eat at the restaurant will also receive a raffle ticket, with a chance to win prizes like free breakfast or pie.
So if you’ve waited 33 years to eat at Valhalla, Labor Day weekend could be fate. But don’t press your luck by waiting any longer, because while Valhalla might seem a fixture, the best things never last forever – no, not even the hallowed hall of the aebleskiver. And though Payne insists, “as long as the Lord gives me my health, I don’t see me stopping,” not even she can say what will happen in the next 33 years. Says Payne, “I might just hang up my rolling pin before then.”
Valhalla Restaurant • 314 W Center Ave., Visalia • (559) 627-2113
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