Tag Archives: roadside restaurants

Truckstops

truckstop1943vachonIt seems that everyone has heard that truck drivers know all the best places to eat along the highway. [John Vachon, Farm Security Administration photo]

It also seems that no one believes it and never has. I suspect that the rumor was created by magazine writers so that they could debunk it. For instance, a writer in 1951 described the belief as “one of the most insidious myths in the folklore of American travel.” Anyone who is gullible enough to follow a truck to a restaurant or diner, he wrote, can expect to end up with “an acute case of gastritis and an awesome respect for the incredible powers of survival exhibited by the U.S. truck driver.”

truckstopAlbanyFew truck drivers have claimed to know the best places to eat. For drivers of 18-wheelers, eating, like everything on the job, has to fit into a punishing schedule if he/she wants to make money. About the only places a driver can stop are those with diesel fuel, big parking lots, and handy locations. Everything else is secondary, including food, which leads to heavy use of antacids and sentiments such as “I wouldn’t feed some truck stop food to a dog.”

Another aspect of restaurant-ing in trucker world is a breakdown of meal categories. Meals become interchangeable and can take place at any hour in a revolving day and night work schedule. Is 3 a.m. breakfast, lunch, or dinner time?

TruckStopGoldenGrill

Reputedly truckstop patrons might encounter fluffy biscuits and fresh vegetables now and then, but I have the sense they were/are the exception. Overall, accounts point to dismal food choices. One of the worst examples was given in a 1962 story that described deep-fried chicken with a coating of cracker crumbs: “You strike a chicken leg and the crust falls away in a curved sheet to disclose a sight best forgotten.”

Although drivers would have been wise to follow the advice to “Never order anything fried at a truckstop,” many plunged ahead with chicken-fried steak smothered in cream gravy. Along with bacon and eggs and hash browns, chicken-fried steak held a high place on truckstop menus. Does it still?

TruckStopFreeportIL

Occasionally truckstop restaurants bought locally and did their own baking, though you can bet that most of the time drivers ate the same fare they hauled in their refrigerated trucks: frozen food. Nonetheless, some stops were known for their specialties. A 1969 guidebook recognized the 350 best truckstop restaurants, among them The Platter Restaurant in the Bosselman Truck Plaza near North Platte, Nebraska, that featured a parchment menu with catfish and “pastel fruit plates”; a New Mexico stop offering Mexican food; and a New Jersey truck plaza with a Ranch Hand Special of three eggs, three pancakes, and two ham steaks, all for $1.75 in 1970.

Earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s when long-haul trucking became established, truckers traveled on state roads and stopped at now-nostalgic though often mediocre “mom and pop” cafes. But with construction of interstate highways and vastly more trucks on the road by the 1960s, their limited hours and small parking lots could not handle demand. Roadside restaurants grew into full-service truck plazas, complete with motels, stores, laundromats, and 24-hour restaurants.

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But whether eating took place in a small stand-alone café or a 200-seat restaurant in a 14-acre plaza, three constants held true. Waitresses had to be friendly and food had to be inexpensive and plentiful. The third? Coffee had to be strong. In truck driver slang, a restaurant was a “coffee pot” and coffee was “diesel fuel.”

Truckstop eateries have made up a significant part of the country’s restaurant industry. In 1977 Restaurant Hospitality magazine listed the Ohio 70-37 truckstop in Hebron OH as one of the biggest grossing independent restaurants in the U.S, despite its low check average of just $1.14 and the fact that all its revenue derived from food sales. (Needless to say, cocktails and 80,000 lb trucks are a bad combination.) According to Ron Ziegler, former Nixon press secretary and then-president of the National Association of Truckstop Operators, in 1986 truckstops were surpassed only by fast food chains as “the largest feeders of the United States.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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Odd restaurant buildings: Big Tree Inn

bigtreeinn

Was there ever a building or structure so strange, so awkward, so ugly that no one yearned to turn it into a restaurant?

Chicken coop, stable, giant tree stump. Why not? Especially if it was likely to catch the eye of speeding motorists and get them to stop out of sheer curiosity if nothing else.

BigTreeInnHumboldtCountyexhibit1915That’s not to say that the Big Tree Inn, for instance, had nothing to recommend it but its oddness, but it certainly had plenty of that. Built from two sections of a redwood log it was designed to exhibit Humboldt County CA’s wood products at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

The stump house, 20 ft in diameter, plus its associated log structure, was contrived by the Rodney Burns Redwood Novelty Co. and shipped by rail in sections to San Francisco where it was reassembled.

Following the exposition, a realtor in Washington state bought the log structure, transporting it to Des Moines WA at great cost. Then he added a kitchen and dining room. The odd building quickly proved a great attraction to gawkers.

The realtor’s intentions in buying the two-part building are unclear – if he had hoped to make money from the redwood structure he was evidently disappointed. For several years the property languished among the real estate listings even though it was described as “very desirable for a chicken dinner place.”

Finally, in 1923 a couple from Seattle, middle-aged and recently married Andrew and Katherine Swanson, bought the Big Tree Inn. Andrew was a bookbinder, an occupation with no seeming suitability for operating a restaurant. Katherine, however, had worked as a cook.

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The two managed to make a success of the venture, running it as a seasonal business for 20 years. A 1930 postcard shows Katherine standing in front of the Big Tree with her new Oldsmobile.

It was a popular destination for parties of city dwellers wanting chicken or steak dinners – or other dishes listed on the menu shown above such as Minced Ham and Pickle Sandwiches. In 1925 a Seattle newspaper advertised the Big Tree as “The Most Unique and Attractive Summer Resort in Washington” – On Des Moines Highway – Family Chicken Dinner, $2.00 – Special ½ Fried Chicken, on Toast, 50c. Not necessary to phone. We are always ready to serve.”

The Big Tree Inn’s location on a heavily traveled highway between Seattle and Tacoma was essential to its success, so when the highway was rerouted in 1938 the Big Tree Inn followed. The Swansons sold it in 1944. The building survived a bad fire in 1946 and was back on the market five years later, described as a “summer gold mine on main hiway” that was “ideal [for] couple management.” What happened to it after that I don’t know.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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“Eat and get gas”

EatandGetGasMO

When I first encountered that jokey phrase as a child I thought it was amazingly clever and funny. So did many adults, evidently, because over the decades numbers of roadside eateries adopted it as a catchphrase. Even as late as 1976 Stuckey’s was using it on a billboard near Dallas. A roadside gas station/café outside Omaha bore the equally cornball name Tank and Tummy.

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It wasn’t long after thousands of Americans acquired cars and took to the roads in the 1920s that all kinds of roadside businesses popped up to serve them. They ranged from campgrounds in farm fields to tourist homes and cabins, gas stations, tea rooms, and cafés. The Depression failed to stifle the urge to travel by car while inspiring thousands to try to make a living from passing traffic. Among the ideas included in a dispiriting little 1937 pamphlet called The Roadman’s Guide (“A Valuable Book of Money Making Formulas, Recipes, Ways, Plans and Schemes”) were carnival games, refreshment stands, and “eating joints.”

AncestryOzarkTavernWestphaliaMO

The gas station/restaurant combination was a popular one, often further combined with a gift shop or rooms for overnight guests. The logic is the same one-stop-shopping idea used by department stores: get customers to stop in for essentials and they may buy other things they didn’t even know they wanted. In Taunton MA in the 1920s, the Marvel Lunch and Filling Station not only had chicken and duck sandwiches on offer but also advertised “Stop and See the Trained Bears.”

Although it did tend to render them less refined, some tea rooms were linked to gas stations. Yet Duncan Hines’ 1937 edition of Adventures in Good Eating for the Discriminating Motorist gave a slightly grudging nod to The Old Elm Tree near Fremont OH, indicating “Just a wayside place with filling station adjacent but they serve a mighty good steak and chicken dinner, as well as all kinds of sandwiches and salads.”

Among those who tried combining gas and eating in the Depression – and succeeded – were Harlan Sanders and Gus Belt, respectively founders of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Steak ’n’ Shake.

AncestryTrouttCafeWoodlawnIL

Which came first in these combined ventures — the gas station or the restaurant? I’ve decided that in most cases it was – and still is – the gas station. And that might account for why so few roadside dining spots earn a reputation for fine food. Consider chains such as Stuckey’s, Nickerson Farms, and Dutch Pantry.

With superhighway construction in the 1950s and 1960s, highway stops institutionalized paired restaurants and gas stations, though by this time they were housed in separate buildings. In 1961 the Stouffer Corporation teamed up with Standard Oil of Ohio to test automat-style restaurants. They were not a success, but generally highway self-service food courts have proved acceptable to the motoring public.

Like many of the eat-and-get-gas highway oases before them, interstate service plazas also do duty as truck stops. But that is the subject of a future post.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Celebrity restaurateurs: Pat Boone

PatBooneDine-O-Mat

Few celebrities become deeply involved in the restaurants that bear their names. That was true of the singer Pat Boone, who was known to visit his namesake restaurants occasionally and to sing and sign autographs at openings. How much good his – or any celebrity’s – connection does for a restaurant is debatable. Neither Pat Boone’s success as a performer nor his pro-family, clean-cut, Christian image saved the ventures he lent his name and money to.

Pat Boone’s Dine-O-Mat appears to have barely gotten off the ground despite what publicity referred to as its “space age” design. “This . . . new type of fully automatic roadside restaurant is destined to be an important landmark on highways all over America,” boasted a 1963 advertisement aimed at investors. The initial plan was to build 100 of the restaurants by summer of 1964, but few seem to have been constructed.

PatBooneCountryInn1959An earlier disappointing experiment in restauranting, Pat Boone’s Country Inn, in Denton TX, closed a mere four years after opening in 1958, even though Boone was connected to the town because of attending North Texas State College there.

While the Country Inn was a conventional restaurant, Dine-O-Mats were designed to be “revolutionary.” Perhaps the New Jersey entrepreneurs who cooked up the Dine-O-Mat concept were inspired by Stouffer’s 1961 foray into selling frozen food from vending machines to Ohio turnpike motorists who reheated it in microwave ovens.

Little could Pat Boone and company know when they launched Dine-O-Mats in 1962 that Stouffer’s would announce less than a year later their intention to phase out the roadside restaurants after realizing that travelers only wanted “speed and price.”

Both Stouffer’s highway restaurants and Dine-O-Mats might be called automats. But unlike Horn & Hardart automats, coins put in a slot did not call forth ready-to-eat selections. Dine-O-Mats had only one employee on the premises, an attendant whose job was to keep the machines loaded with frozen food. Rather comically, the postcard above shows customers (and Pat) dressed in their Sunday best, yet they are “dining” in a dismal geodesic-domed hut surrounded by vending machines and two microwaves sunk into an imitation hearth.

Similar to Stouffer’s restaurants, Dine-O-Mats were to be located near “motels, service stations, shopping centers, bowling alleys, country clubs, amusement parks, factories, air and bus terminals and along major highways,” according to a 1962 prospectus. How many were ever built, other than the prototype on Route 46 in Little Ferry NJ, is unclear. There may have been a few additional ones in New Jersey and Georgia.

Since kitchenless Dine-O-Mats relied on cooked food supplied by an offsite commissary, the scheme made sense only if deliveries could reach multiple outlets easily. In 1964 construction was to begin on a unit in Augusta, Georgia, but the project was delayed because of company “reorganization.” It was to be part of a group of Dine-O-Mats in Albany, Macon, and Savannah, but whether any of the Georgia restaurants opened I cannot determine.

PatBooneDunkinDonutsNPlainfieldNJIn 1965, when the Augusta construction was slated to begin, a newspaper report announced, “The Pat Boone Restaurant Corp. has revised all plans and has just now completed reorganization with new, modernized plans for its restaurants.” Though it’s hard to imagine what could be more modern than “space age,” it’s possible the geodesic dome had been scrapped and that the North Plainfield NJ Dunkin Donuts pictured here was once a Dine-O-Mat as some people believe.

The company’s confusing advertisements for prospective investors required differing minimum investment amounts ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 for a “limited (inactive) partnership” in April of 1963, to $15,000 to become an “area controller” in October, then asking $10,000 for an “investment opportunity” in March of 1965. Did anyone ever get the 10% to 13% returns that were estimated?

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

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Anatomy of a restaurateur: Anna de Naucaze

In 1908 two women adventurers opened The Rose Tree Inn, a tea room in a 200-year old house in Northampton, Massachusetts. Both called themselves “Madame” and claimed to be related to European nobility by birth or marriage. They were used to supporting themselves and living by their wits. One, Anna [pictured], a widow, was a former British stage actress, while the other, Marie, who had an 11-year old son, was married to a criminally inclined soldier of fortune who masqueraded as a German baron and was exiled to a British penal colony.

Each had arrived in New York City from London in 1907 to cover the sensational Harry Thaw murder trial for British papers. Almost immediately they became involved in what might be termed attempted “capers.” Madame Anna de Naucaze, 52, claimed she knew the secret to winning at roulette and could prove it if only someone would back her at Monte Carlo, while Madame Marie von Veltheim, about 38, said she had a treasure map showing where $4 million in gold was buried in mountains in South Africa’s Transvaal.

Next they got in trouble with the courts for misappropriating a photo album that was evidence in the Thaw trial. The album contained photographs of Thaw’s wife Evelyn Nesbit who had been having an affair with Thaw’s victim, architect Stanford White. With a possible charge of larceny hanging over them, Anna returned the album to Thaw’s lawyer.

And then they went to Northampton. By comparison with their pasts, the small college town must have seemed dull. It’s not clear what drew them there, though if they were looking for a way to make money, they found it. The RTI, as it was known by its primary patrons, Smith College students, became a very popular place known for its sumptuous desserts and continental, “bohemian” atmosphere. Marie, who claimed to be the inn’s originator, stayed around until about 1913 when, after looking for a location for a new tea room, she evidently left for New York to “save her husband.”

Anna ran the tea room for the next 10 years, catering to students from Smith, Amherst College, and the Massachusetts Agricultural College. She took out advertisements as far away as Yale and also entertained visitors from her stage and literary past. She did well enough to warrant additions to the inn, one a screened-in section known as “the bird cage.” She opened two annexes in town, the Rose Tree Hut and the Rose Tree Den. At some point there was also a summer branch of the RTI in Old Orchard, Maine.

In addition to the attractions of delicious food and the quaint house with its old world charm, everyone was intrigued with the eccentric person of Anna herself, particularly because her gender was ambiguous. She dressed like a man and seemed mysterious. As one student put it, “Some say she is fleeing from justice, that she married a Frenchman and were greatly in debt so left France and came to America.” She was reported at various times to have been born in France, Belgium, and Russia. For several years she published a magazine called “4 All,” and she occasionally appeared in local theater productions. She was also known for writing her own humorous and folksy advertising copy, such as, “If you descend in an aëroplane we will be ready for you, but we much prefer to have you telephone.” According to a 1915 story about her, after business hours she spent evenings “alone with her dog and her revolver.”

In the early 1920s Anna fell afoul of Smith’s good graces over issues such as the inn’s cleanliness and reports that Smith students were smoking, and maybe drinking and meeting boys there. In 1923, when the college still had the power to control which off-campus restaurants students could patronize, the RTI was removed from the approved list. The RTI could not go on and, at age 69, Anna was deprived of her income. She lived in Maryland for a while but died in NYC in 1924. For many years later the building was occupied by the Rose Tree Filling Station.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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The checkered career of the roadhouse

Before the Civil War roadside drinking and eating places on the outskirts of cities were visited by people who enjoyed making them the destination of a leisurely buggy ride. In winter sleighs full of young people from Boston would go to North Cambridge or Arlington for steak dinners and dancing. Although they sometimes drew a rough crowd, such as the pickpockets and grifters who gathered for cattle fairs and races, these places were generally considered respectable.

As railroads spread across states such as Massachusetts following the war, fares fell and roadhouses drew an undesirable, rowdy crowd. They gradually began to fade away as cities grew. Yet their unsavory reputation lingered and grew more intense with suburbanization in the late 19th century. Minnesota legislated against roadhouses in 1915, and towns around Chicago fought them and often succeeded in having their liquor licenses taken away. Others, however, survived and became legit — for instance Busch’s Grove originally located on the outskirts of St. Louis.

The same reform fervor that attacked drinking (and prostitution) in roadhouses brought new life to them as they were turned into colonial-style “wayside” tea houses by middle-class women in the teens and 1920s. As a writer for Good Housekeeping magazine observed in 1911, these were just the sort of places to appeal to “quieter folks of good taste.” The most famous example, the Wayside Inn of Sudbury, Massachusetts, was bought in 1923 by Henry Ford to rescue it from its alcoholic past.

There were risks in opening a teetotalling establishment in an old watering hole. As the proprietor of a Pennsylvania roadhouse converted into the Huckleberry Inn discovered, old customers had a habit of coming by and demanding their accustomed drinks.

Was this the reason why liquor was found at the Nine Owls Tea Room in Pembroke, Massachusetts, when town police raided it in 1927? The Nine Owls, on Mattakeesett street, was run by Elizabeth Buxton, who had moved to town from Somerville with her family in the 1920s. Had it once been a roadhouse? It is not clear whether she founded the tea room or took it over from someone else, or exactly how long she was its proprietor. In 1932, a year after her husband was struck by a car and killed, she advertised for boarders but I have found no trace of her after that date.

As shown in the accompanying illustration, the Nine Owls eventually reverted to a roadhouse. In this photo, genteel elements from its tea room past such as window boxes, canvas awnings, and flower gardens are missing. A Budweiser sign is prominent. The reputation of the Nine Owls may have been pristine — but to me it has the look of a roadhouse in a Hollywood film noir. Its moodiness reminds me of the image of Casablanca in Palatine, Illinois, scene of a murder in 1949.

The Nine Owls was in operation under that name at least until 1970 when its owner, Edwin Mason, was killed in a motorcycle accident. At some later point the building burned down.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Basic fare: waffles

waffleshop101In the early 19th century Philadelphians enjoyed driving their carriages to the falls on the Schuykill River, the area now known as East Falls, then lined with hotels and restaurants. Eating places there specialized in a favorite dish associated with Philadelphia long before the advent of cheese steaks, namely catfish and waffles. (I’d like to believe that the dish did not include maple syrup.)

Jumping ahead some 50 years, waffles also turn up again in Philadelphia as a featured specialty at a Civil War fundraiser in which an old-time kitchen recreated the food and cooking methods of early German settlers. While gazing at souvenirs such as Benjamin Franklin’s desk and a copper kettle used to make coffee for Revolutionary War soldiers, diners could indulge themselves with buttered waffles with sugar and cinnamon, sausages, or “omelette etwas” (scrambled eggs).

Of course waffles could be found in many restaurants over the past 200 years but they seem to have been especially popular in certain places and times. The “Wild West” was well supplied with waffle kitchens and houses. In mining camps and early settlements in Oregon, California, and Colorado waffles turn up on many menus in the 1880s and 1890s. Only in the West was the term “waffle foundry” used to describe lunch rooms like those in Los Angeles where in 1894 “a large waffle, swimming in melted butter and syrup is served for ten cents.”

2GirlsWaffleHouseWell into the 20th century waffles were familiar fare in boom towns such as Anchorage, Alaska, and the oilfields of Oklahoma. Around 1915 two young women from Seattle decided to seek their fortune in Alaska with the Two Girls Waffle House (pictured). In what was not much more than a shack with a canvas roof they could handle only eight customers at the counter. But after a year they had made enough money from railroad construction workers to build a permanent structure. A similar success story could be told about the two young men who ran the Kansas City Waffle House in Drumright, Oklahoma, before graduating to a bigger enterprise in Tulsa.

montgomery301Waffles were also a staple of tea rooms in the early 20th century. In places as varied as big city afternoon tea haunts and humble eateries in old New England homesteads, waffles attracted patrons. In 1917 New Yorkers could choose among the Colonia Tea Room,  At the Sign of the Green Tea Pot, or the Brown Betty for their waffles fix. In the early 1920s, the fantastical Tam O’Shanter Inn of Los Angeles, then known as Montgomery’s Country Inn (pictured), offered chicken and waffles, a common dish at roadside tea rooms then. Tea room and coffee house magnate Alice Foote MacDougall attributed her successful career to the waffles she served in her Little Coffee House Grand Central Station restaurant in 1919.

As the Wells Manufacturing Company, maker of commercial waffle bakers, advertised in 1948: “Look! There’s a lot of Money in Waffles!”

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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