Dining Out is Fun

Texas cafes have what it takes to get you through the day—mashed potatoes and chicken-fried steak. The rest is gravy.

We always liked the Colonial Cafe. It was part of the character of the main street of Navasota, a Kennard family stronghold, something we took for granted. No matter where we went in the world or how long we were gone, we always thought that the Colonial Cafe would be there when we got back, just down the street from the Navasota Abstract Company and catty-corner from the John Deere tractor place.

But now the Colonial Cafe is closed, and we feel the way we did when Ed’s great-uncle Willie died. He was one of those relatives we liked even though we didn’t see much of him. We had always intended to do this or that together, but we never did. We’re sorry for the time we didn’t spend with Uncle Willie and for the meals we didn’t eat at the Colonial Cafe.

The passing of the Colonial is a shame because it was a piece of that Texas you don’t find much anymore, the Texas of the fifties, back when just about everybody drove a Ford with a sticker on the rear window that read, “Built in Texas by Texans.” Don’t misunderstand; we’re not opposed to change. It doesn’t bother us that gas stations don’t check your oil and your air or even pump your gas. We don’t care that there aren’t any dime stores or barbershops or drive-in movie theaters that show something besides pornography. Those aren’t the things that define our state. But cafes are different, and their waning numbers underscore the erosion of Old Texas. The day may come when the only Texas cafe you’ll be able to find will be in Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum—and it won’t serve food. This erosion didn’t start yesterday, of course; it’s been happening for years. Obviously it has something to do with the development of the interstate highway system, which avoids small towns, and the growth of fast-food chains. How can a local cafe survive a highway bypass or compete with the marketing macho of a McDonald’s, a Wendy’s, a Dairy Queen, or a Sonic? It can’t.

But the cafe hasn’t vanished altogether. If you look hard enough, you can still find authentic Texas cafes in which to eat—and some in which not to. But you have to know where to look, and unfortunately for urbanites, the city is usually not the place (though there are a few notable exceptions). No, to find the real thing you have to search in small towns—and you have to get off the freeways. You’re about as likely to find a cafe on a big-city freeway as you are a Texas highway patrolman willing to ignore the fact that his radar just clocked you doing 83 miles an hour.

Once you’ve discovered what appears to be a cafe, it is necessary to check it for authenticity, or else you could easily end up eating in heaven forbid a restaurant or a barbeque joint. A simple but generally reliable rule is that real cafes usually call themselves cafes. Another good test is the cashier’s counter. A glass display case with a well-worn cash register and a spindle holding plenty of “Dining Out Is Fun” receipts is a promising sign. Another is the local club placard. If the Lions eat there, consider it good enough for you.

Speaking of signs, an authentic cafe has lots of them. At Orsak’s Cafe in Fayetteville, you’ll find this pearl of wisdom: “Don’t criticize your wife, remember who she married.” At another place we noted “Spending money can seriously damage your wealth.” In Dallas at Ginnie’s Bishop Grill we saw a sign that read, “Home of homestyle Southern cooking. We feed Texans not Frenchmen. So we cook Texas style for Texans and are proud of it.” Cafe owners also post a lot of rules on hand-lettered signs, mostly having to do with intoxication on the premises, bounced checks, and a minimum dress code, as in “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” We’re glad to see that “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” has all but disappeared from the walls of Texas cafes.

The strangest “Hours Open” sign we found was at Michalsky’s Cafe in Fayetteville: “Open as long as there is a light. No light, no open.” Below it in smaller, handwritten letters is “Cooks gone dancing.” We were told that the sign was made by one of the owner’s good friends, now deceased – gone, we hope, to that ultimate honky-tonk.

Because cafe owners have to spend so much time in their places of business, they personalize their surroundings. We haven’t seen one cafe in Texas that didn’t have a photograph or two on the walls, most often of children and grandchildren. Tied for second are photographs of high school cheerleaders and of sportsmen proudly displaying trophy deer or fish. Should you want the cafe owner to talk to you instead of just ringing up your tab, ask about the pictures.

One of the admirable things about the people who own cafes is that they all seem to possess a business attitude of “Make do with what you have got, then you’ll have no need for what you have not.” Sarah’s Cafe in Fort Stockton marks its ladies’ room with a picture of a woman cut from a magazine – no words, no universal gender symbols, just straightforward graphic communication. That same make-do attitude is likely the reason you never see cafe employees wearing uniforms. If you do, the cafe has probably been recently purchased by a yuppie drop-out who still drives a BMW. Please, turn on your heel and exit.

Cafe menus aren’t fancy, and they’re invariably used until they wear out. You’re bound to see a lot of prices that have been changed, new items scribbled in, old ones inked out. Our favorite menus are the ones with generic pictures, made by V.C. Menus in Eastland (see “ Local Menu Makes Good,” TM, November 1983). On one trip across Texas we once saw the same picture of a

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