Who 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.
The 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.
Around 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