Photos by David Stuck
Dig into a plate of chicken and waffles at Tom and Ray’s in Damascus and you’ll notice that almost every other diner knows someone else — a long-time customer who’s friends with the servers, or two neighbors who happened to come in at the same time.
It’s no surprise to the regulars. Tom and Ray’s Family Restaurant has been a small-town fixture since 1960.
“We’re what I call a life cycle restaurant,” says owner Bernie Moxley. “We’ve had people come in who just had to bury a loved one that used to be a Tom and Ray’s customer. We have people whose parents brought them here when they were a child, and now they’re bringing their children. We have new citizens in the area that come in and really enjoy what we’re about. It’s really about community, and people feeling comfortable.”
Moxley says that mornings and early afternoons are when the “older folks” usually come in. Students from nearby Damascus High School flood in during the late afternoon. The weekends are typically family time. But no matter the demographic, Moxley says the friendships between servers and customers are part of the Tom and Ray’s ambience.
“I like to talk to people and our customers love talking to our servers,” Moxley says. “Life’s about relationships. And we really cultivate that.”
Tom and Ray’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and, if you have room, dessert. Moxley says the homemade milkshake with whipped cream and a cherry is a customer favorite.
The current location on Main Street, with its subway tiles and wood from a 19th century barn, opened in 2019. The walls are decorated with old photos of Damascus (population 17,000) and portraits of person town, and portraits of Tom Bellison and Ray Luhn, who opened the restaurant in 1960.
Gary Bellison, Tom Bellison’s grandson, eventually took over the diner, but closed it in 2016. Soon after, he approached Moxley and his wife, Traci Moxley, to reopen Tom and Ray’s. Moxley likes to say that the food he serves is as good as what Tom and Ray put on their customers’ tables. He said he takes pride in serving homemade dishes made from local ingredients.
“A lot of restaurants have abandoned homestyle cooking because it’s just too expensive,” Moxley says. “They say, ‘We’ll just get it out of a bag or a can.’ We resist that as much as humanly possible.”
Fried chicken tenders marinate in buttermilk for 24 hours for the chicken and waffles and are hand battered. Their meats come from local farms. All of their baked goods and desserts — from their strawberry pie to the chocolate cheesecake — are made fresh on the premises.
Do you want to hear about the specials? How about a hot open-faced turkey sandwich served with dressing and homemade mashed potatoes? Moxley calls it “Thanksgiving on a piece of bread.”
Many of Tom and Ray’s employees are students at Damascus High School. Moxley himself started working at the restaurant when he was a junior at the high school in 1978.
With such a deep connection to the community, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the restaurant hosted 36 free food distribution events. Moxley says there were long-time customers who were struggling, some of whom had lost their jobs. He wanted Tom and Ray’s to help.
“Even though it was very difficult for us as a restaurant during that time, when you’re a part of that community you’ve got to give to that community,” Moxley says.
Moxley recalls a couple who came into the restaurant in early 2022 and thanked him for the food Tom and Ray’s provided for them.
“I get chills talking about it,” Moxley says. “It’s that impact. It’s the fact that you had a positive influence on people’s lives and you’re there when they need you.”
9805 Main Street Suite 206
Damascus, MD 20872