A few years before Maple Valley became a city, before subdivisions spread out and traffic clogged roads, a red-painted restaurant called...
A few years before Maple Valley became a city, before subdivisions spread out and traffic clogged roads, a red-painted restaurant called The Testy Chef was born.
The old-timers wandered through it, this tiny, tidy building that used to be their bait and tackle shop. Shirley Langen had put wood floors down where linoleum had been. She had sewn gingham curtains. She had hung moose antlers on the walls.
“They would walk in, look around, hardly talk to you,” said Langen, who opened the diner just off Maple Valley Highway in 1993. “I was so intimidated at first.”
Some became her regulars, sitting at the counter in ice-cream-parlor seats, watching as Langen tried her best to cook. She had bought the 460-square-foot building on a whim, a career waitress who thought it would be fun to dress up an antique of a place, then make it run.
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She hired her niece to cook and a few old waitress friends, and they winged it until Maple Valley’s popularity exploded and brought in hundreds more customers.
Now “The Testy” is a town tradition, with church-goers packing the place on Sundays and regulars teasing the staff from the counter every morning. Come springtime, diners sit on the porch, the Cedar River rushing below. Soon, Langen plans to open a wine garden, a nod to the newer folks in town.
And there are plenty of those. In its first decade as a city, Maple Valley’s population has doubled. There are mansions on the hills now. Langen sees the whole range inside her restaurant, from white-collar couples to Department of Transportation workers.
Some come for the food, from Uncle Jimmy’s garlic burger to a hash-browns-and-egg concoction called the Testy Mess. But for many, the main attraction is the staff, also known as the entertainment.
In addition to taking orders, the waitresses do the prep work and some of the cooking, all in a tiny horseshoe space surrounded by the counter. It’s spectator sport to watch them at work, the way they mock, make mistakes and get mad as they go.
The regulars find particular fun in teasing Langen, a fast-talking former cheerleader who likes to hold court at the counter.
“You do not talk to that woman about politics,” said her niece and chef Angie Stahl, 36. “She feels if she yells louder, it will make you change your mind.”
A single working mother for most of her life, Langen has been known to help her staff with whatever they need, whenever they need it. But her daughters are her focus. After all those years of saving money and pushing education and coaching their childhood teams, one works now for Microsoft, the other for the Mariners.
“This is what I did, all by myself,” Langen said.
Raised in Burien, Langen started her adult life as a housewife, marrying and divorcing twice before she settled in what is now Black Diamond. She worked as an accountant for the city of Kent, then became a waitress and later a manager at high-end restaurants around town.
When she decided to open her own diner, Langen was 48, with nothing in her freezer but a stack of bills. She could make hash browns, but that was about it.
Some people questioned her sanity. Her question for them: “You want me to stay safe all my life?”
Langen had the place cleaned up in days. She chose a name that would advertise her enthusiasm and inexperience: “Tasty Food, Testy Chef.” Then she took out the “tasty food,” just in case.