Tag Archives: roadside restaurants

Find of the day: Mrs. K’s Toll House Tavern


Over the weekend, at a vintage paper and postcard show in Boxborough MA, I found a charming diecut menu from a restaurant in Silver Spring MD. Established in 1930 by Olive and Harvey Kreuzburg, the landmark restaurant is still in operation today though no longer owned by the founding family.

Shown through the window is page 2 of the menu illustrated with a fireplace inscribed with a cryptogram. Can you figure it out? Hint: the riddle is said to have originated in England. (Click to enlarge. Answer below.)

MrsKs941Judging by the prices, this menu is from around 1950. A Tenderloin Steak dinner accompanied by French Fried Onions or Fresh Mushrooms, cost $2.25. It was served with soup, fruit relish, salad, three vegetables, a sherbet course, hot bread, dessert, beverage, and after dinner mints. By 1962, when the Kreuzburg’s son Richard ran the restaurant, that dinner had gone up to $6.00. Burgundy, Sauterne, Claret, and Blue Ribbon beer were available. All meals were served family style with bowls filled with enough for the entire table. Mrs. K assured guests that everything was prepared from scratch on the premises and under her supervision.

Olive Kreuzburg was not new to the restaurant business when she and her husband took over the old toll house that had previously been the home of two other failed tea rooms. In 1923 it operated as the Seven Oaks Tavern where sky high prices must have contributed to its demise. Olive’s prior experience included running the dining room of the Hotel Wellesley in Clayton NY, a tea room in Miami FL called Mrs. K’s, and two tea rooms in Washington DC, one named Mrs. K’s, and the other Mrs. K’s Brick Wall Inn. Clearly using her abbreviated name served her well.

At its opening in 1930 the Silver Spring Toll House was listed in a DC newspaper under “Where to Motor and Dine.” At that time development had not sprung up around Mrs. K’s; although only “a 30-minute drive from the White House,” it was in the country. The early advertisement read: “This old Toll House with its charming furnishings and Terraced Gardens marks a delightfully smart Country Dinner Place.”


Getting through the Depression was no doubt aided by Duncan Hines’ recommendation of Mrs. K’s in his very first list of his favorite restaurants that he sent out to friends in a 1935 Christmas card. Later he expanded the list and published it as a book. In the 1937 edition, he said of Mrs. K’s, “You dine in the past here – so far as furnishings are concerned. Nothing is changed apparently from the Revolutionary days when it was built. Even the pretty girls who wait on you in Colonial dress seem to have been miraculously preserved from a more leisurely age when dining was a rite not to be passed over casually.”

Whether or not the building dated from the Revolution, the quaint restaurant was filled with antiques collected by the Kreuzburg’s.

The cryptogram explained:
If the grate be [great B] empty (m t), put coal on [colon].
If the grate be full, stop [ . ] putting coal on.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015


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Find of the day: Moody’s Diner cookbook

moodysdinerbookAt a weekend flea market I found a copy of What’s Cooking at Moody’s Diner, a book of recipes and reminiscences published in 1989 (it was revised and redesigned in 2003). Although it is neither rare nor valuable in monetary terms, I consider it a “find” because of how I happened upon it when I was about to give up.

moodysdinercolor2The Route 1 diner in Waldoboro ME dates back to a small food stand built and operated by Percy Moody and his family in the early 1930s. After many additions and updates it is still going strong today as a substantial restaurant with a menu probably far more diverse than it was in the beginning, judging from a sample 1930s lunch menu included in the book. Then, hungry travelers on a budget might select plain sandwiches such as Bread & Butter (5c) or Fried Egg (10c). If they wanted something grander they could have Lobster or Crabmeat sandwiches at 20c apiece. Toasted sandwiches cost an additional 5c.

moody'sdinerjune1941Many people associate diners with prefab structures of stainless steel but Moody’s Diner is an example of a vernacular design constructed of wood. Before it was moved to Route 1, the initial Moody food stand accompanied Moody’s Cabins, a few of which had been built in 1927, a year when many a farmer in or near a vacation area decided to try to capture some of the tourist trade speeding by in their newly purchased cars. No doubt a roadside business helped offset some of the effects of the Depression.

The 1989 edition of What’s Cooking at Moody’s Diner, by Nancy Moody Genthner and edited by Kerry Leichtman, contains a wealth of recipes for “home-made” style dishes, desserts, salads, and breads. Twenty-five casserole recipes, many using canned soup, stand out for being far removed from routine restaurant fare.


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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?


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?


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.


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


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.


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”


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.


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.”


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.


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


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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