Chuck wagon-ing

chuckwagoncafe333Who was first to realize that they could cover bad plaster on their ceilings and walls with canvas and call their restaurant a covered wagon or a chuck wagon? The idea seems to have  struck initially in the 1930s, at least that’s when the first Covered Wagon restaurant I’ve found dates from. It was in the Old West – no, make that Minneapolis, with a second in St. Paul. Red checkered tablecloths covered the tables and  in the 195os the female waitstaff wore long calico dresses with aprons, a fact I know thanks to the well-illustrated book Minnesota Eats Out. There was also a Covered Wagon in Chicago in the 1940s, presumably under different ownership but with the same tablecloths.

ED'schuckwagon1The wagon-esque theme caught on big during the 1950s, inspired partly by TV westerns and  partly by the fame of Las Vegas chuck wagon buffets which provided grub for gamblers from midnight ‘til dawn. If not for Vegas envy, why else would there have been one in Miami Beach in 1955? Apparently seeing no local cuisine worth merchandising, restaurateurs there chose from a grab bag of themes such as Smorgs, Polynesian, and Ken’s Pancake Parade. (“Grandma’s Kitchen” was the town’s most venerable eating establishment at the time.)

Cuisine of choice in a chuck wagon? It hardly seems necessary to mention that it was steak. With cocktails. In 1956 the Highland Ranch Wagon, in Oakland CA, offered an All You Can Eat Prime Rib special, with the opportunity to “Create Your Own Salad” for only $2.25.

dillywagon334Around 1960 a Potsdam NY man got the idea of franchising Dilly Wagons as a way to market his hot sauce. The first franchisees were in Vermont (pictured), a region where he was no doubt correct, as his 1961 advertisement said, that the wagon was the “most eye-catching structure ever seen on the highway.”

Chuck wagons continued through the 1960s and 1970s, with names such as the Chuck Wagon Sandwich-teria (Appleton WI), the Wagon Wheel (many places), and the Fiesta Chuck Wagon (Chicago area). Chuck wagon restaurants live on today, many having become buffet-style eateries where children are welcome.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009


Filed under odd buildings

9 responses to “Chuck wagon-ing

  1. Anonymous

    Heinz red burger relish, hot pepper, little mustard, cook 10 minutes.

  2. Joyce Justice

    I just happened to find this site and I was amazed to see the picture of the Dilly Wagon in South Burlington, Vermont. I worked there as a car hop in the 60s and I believe I am in that picture. My mother was also a cook at the same location. The restaurant was owned by the Bisonette family of Burlington Vermont and they guarded the recipes like fort knox for the dilly sauce, there were 3 levels of spicy #1, #2, #3 and a Texas sauce with onions and a Chinese mustard that they served on hot dogs. I have always wanted these recipes and never been able to get them. But you did bring back old memories for me. If you ever find the recipes please let me know.

    • Jon Hanson

      Joyce, thanks for your post…it brought back memories for me too. I remember the Dilly Wagon in South Burlington on the Williston Rd. It was great! At the time there were about 6 of us kids and we never let my mom drive by the Dilly Wagon without stopping either on the way in to Burlington or the way back to Stowe. I was about 10 yrs old at the time. The covered wagon was an eye-catcher, but it was the dilly sauce that kept us coming back. #2 and #3 were my favorites. I wish I could get the recipe too, cause to this date I still dream about eating another Dilly Dog….mmmmmmmm. I think there should be a law, that if you don’t use a recipe for more than 10 years then you have to make it public. Then poor people like me will not have to go to the grave still dreaming about the Dilly Sauce…Hahaha.

  3. gene

    Do you know where you can buy the dilly sauce they put on hamburgers in the potsdam new york chuckwagon in the 60s? Thank you.

  4. crambole

    There was a franchise in Dallas Texas in the early 50’s that sold wagon shaped fast food structures called The Chuck Wagon. Do you have any information about this company?

  5. Pingback: Food Chuck wagon-ing | India Restaurants

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