Texas was once full of boarding houses, usually comfortable two-story homes near Main Street or the town’s railroad depot with a ROOMERS sign tacked out front and a swing on the porch. A weary traveler could stay there a night or six months and be assured of a clean bed, warm bath, conversation, and best of all, real food. Boarding houses were early Texas restaurants in the true sense of the word, a place where one was restored, put back into shape, to continue the journey.
The beginning of the end for this civilized way of life came after World War II when huge green neon signs began springing up along highways announcing a “Holiday Inn.” The billion-dollar motel (née tourist court) industry had arrived to accommodate the herds of travelers who could be attracted by standardized efficiency, anonymity, and indifferent food.
The food was the best thing about stopping overnight at a boarding house. It bore virtually no resemblance to today’s restaurant offerings. The vegetables were fresh, usually grown not far from the dining table. The entrees were prepared in a variety of ways with a variety of ingredients. And your chances of swallowing some of the 2500 to 3000 chemical additives, 31 stabilizers, a dozen coloring agents, and more than 1000 flavoring ingredients found in today’s supermarket-restaurant food were slim.
Of course you can still find well-prepared food in Texas, and not just at the obvious places like the Pyramid Room in Dallas or Tony’s in Houston, where the menu is haute cuisine and the bill can easily blow a month’s food budget. But for hearty home-cooked meals, these family-style restaurants still retain their own unconquered territory in fast-food America. There aren’t so many of them these days, but they are still the only places where the food comes in a dish with a spoon in it. I’m not including high-powered family-style places like Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth or the San Jacinto Inn near Houston, just the descendants of basic boarding house cuisine. The chief requirements to qualify are that there is no formal menu; the: diners eat what the cook wants to fix; and there is no claim to tables. You come, sit down where there’s a place, and eat what’s in front of you.
The places that serve the real thing usually aren’t found in big towns anymore. They have been in business at least 25 years and are usually run by a grandmother whose first name is “Mrs.” They serve friends and regulars, not hordes. There is no menu, because the offerings change daily. But always you will find at least three meat entrees; a minimum of five vegetables; four salads; homemade rolls; and two homemade desserts. You consume this spread elbow-to-elbow with your fellow gorgers at dormitory-size or dining room tables.
Only seven such family-style restaurants remain in Texas, as far as I can tell, after checking in over 45 towns and making phone calls to about 70 others. Some have recently closed, such as the Harris House in Marlin. Some have fallen on hard times, relying too much on canned goods and refrigerated hocus-pocus, such as Maudie’s west of Austin near Lake Travis. But the remaining seven are wonderful. Hot rolls baked an hour before lunch. Squash with a special granny ingredient that the chef at the Pyramid Room would gladly steal. Hall-of-fame cobbler. Roast beef you can slice with a tongue depressor. Try them all. Your stomach will love you.
Leading a life of Leasure; boarders and other Pasadena diners give heartfelt thanks for Mrs. L’s daily spread.
Leasure’s Dining Room
You can say just about everything good about Pasadena in one phrase: Mrs. Leasure’s Dining Room. The happiest people I know in Pasadena are pollution inspectors, who are blessed because they feel needed, and because they can eat seven days a week at Mrs. Leasure’s.
Mrs. C. E. Leasure, along with Mrs. Carleton in Bryan, runs the only family-style restaurant that still takes roomers. At Mrs. Leasure’s, 87 male refinery workers, carpenters, truck drivers, and students live across the street from the dining room in small motel-style cabins. Most are overweight.
Since 1959, Mrs. Leasure has served lumberjack breakfasts, made up sack lunches for “her boys,” and then cooked mammoth lunch and supper meals for boarders and customers. She uses the if-it’s-Monday-it-must-be-beeftips feeding schedule. Therefore, on Tuesday (and again on Sunday), it’s chicken and dumplings; Wednesday, liver; Thursday, barbecue; Friday, fish; and Saturday, pork chops. There’s also fried chicken and meat loaf every day, plus eight to ten vegetables, depending on what’s fresh at the Airline Produce Market. Homemade rolls and dessert, of course.
The long, dormitory-style tables are populated with satisfied hippies, old cronies, an occasional astronaut, Pasadena Mayor John Ray Harrison, and lawyer Leon Philips. Each would echo the post-dessert epitaph, barely squeezed out between two toothpicks by a regular boarder: “The only bad thing about this place is the hour after you leave the table.”
Mrs. Leasure’s Dining Room/ 219 S. Randall, Pasadena/ Open 5 a.m.-7 p.m., except Sunday 5 a.m.-5 p.m./ $2.75.
I’ve heard the kids in Angleton are bummed out. No wonder. On a recent Monday, their choices on the school menu were steak fingers with catsup, a foot-long chili hotdog, french fries, and birthday cake. Meanwhile, the grownups were down at Mrs. Mac’s, ridding the place of roast beef, liver and onions, okra gumbo, snap beans, cabbage, sweet potatoes, and as many of the homemade rolls (Wednesdays only) or cornbread as individual stuffing power permitted.
Also available were generous snatches from Mrs. Mac’s favorite afternoon soapers, General Hospital and One Life to Live. At 4 p.m. Mrs. Mac—on her way to a full-service entertainment conglomerate—steps next door and opens up Mrs. Mac’s Beer Tavern.
Mrs. Max Landis grew up in a boarding house family. Her parents ran Clark’s Boarding House, first in Georgetown, later in Taylor. She learned “not to feed too many and to start cooking early. Buy fresh if you can; if not, frozen; and if it’s canned, don’t serve it.”
At full capacity, Mrs. Mac’s holds 28 people who sit at four regular-size dining tables. She employs the 100-yard dash theory of restaurant operation: Go as hard as you can for a short time. From 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., the action resembles the floor of the Chicago futures market without the yelling. To avoid the chili dog and birthday cake costs you a mere $2.50.
Mrs. Mac’s/ 1129 E. Mulberry, Angleton/ Open 11:30 a.m.-l p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday/ $2.50.
The Pickett House
To be shanghaied and bound over to the cooks at the Pickett House is a favorite dream of mine. It sits in the beautiful deep East Texas Piney Woods, near Woodville, a seventy-year-old one-room schoolhouse turned food palace, with white picket fence and porch, and red roof. Here and only here is homemade cornbread made from Mrs. Clyde Gray’s own stone-ground meal. Only here will the family-style meal explorer find fresh buttermilk and honest-to-God butter.
The Pickett House more accurately reflects its environment than the other family-style spots. East Texas delicacies, such as collard greens with hog jowl, turnip greens and bacon ends, watermelon rind preserves, speckled butter beans with salt pork, are available along with the regulars: fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, fried livers and gizzards on Thursdays, and chicken gumbo on weekends.
Mrs. Gray retains vestiges of the boarding-house etiquette. You return your ravaged plate to the dishwasher’s window. You serve yourself soup and beverage (coffee, fresh buttermilk, sweet or regular tea) and wait for the lady to bring all the rest. Ten fellow hungries, seated at long oil-clothed tables, do polite combat with you for the Fordhook limas with okra or the broccoli with cheese sauce. Immediately, the statutory 245 tastebuds contained in everyone’s tongue epithelium begin earning time-and-a-half wages. All this and hot homemade apple cobbler and biscuits, too.
The Pickett House/ State Highway 190, one mile west of Woodville/ Open weekdays 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday until 6 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s/ $2.40.
The Blessing Hotel Coffee Shop
For food freaks who love rice and seventy-year-old hotels, the Blessing Hotel Coffee Shop is the ticket. Blessing is a wart of a town on State Highway 35 west of Bay City surrounded by rice farms and rice farmers, who stomp out of Mrs. Evelyn Luker’s family-style food landmark if rice is missing from the day’s eight vegetables. Not one to needlessly run off business, Mrs. Luker serves up the best rice in Texas: fluffy, puffy, moist bowlfuls of the cereal that provides the principal food for a third of the world’s eaters. On Sundays, when the Luker operation combines the best of the big seven’s turkey and dressing with Divine Rice, you may think heaven is in Blessing.
The aging Blessing Hotel, built in 1907 from native cypress, is owned by Houston architect Abel Pierce, Jr., who is raising money for restoration through the Blessing Historical Foundation. The 33 rooms haven’t seen customers in three years. But the coffee shop, once the grand ballroom, plays to packed crowds seven days a week for breakfast and lunch.
Real mashed potatoes, mustard greens, butter beans and pinto beans, triumphant homemade noodles, beeftips, chicken-fried steak, fresh fish from the Gulf twelve miles south, liver and onions, and the inevitable home-cooked rolls guarantee instant torpor for several hours afterward. Not content to stuff Blessingites, Mrs. Luker journeys to nearby El Campo on Tuesdays and serves family-style lunches at the Livestock Commission to cattlemen attending the weekly auction. Dieters be forewarned: in Mrs. Luker’s territory, you will get no mercy.
Blessing Hotel Coffee Shop/ FM Road 616, Blessing/ Open every day 6 a.m.-2 p.m./ $2.50.
Mom’s Dining Room
Mrs. Vera Carleton is a survivor. For one thing, the 75-year-old cook and owner of Mom’s Dining Room in Bryan has served Aggies for forty years. Then last-June a kitchen fire gutted her business-residence where she had lived and cooked for fifty-years. Fire and Aggies, a combination that would overwhelm most people but not Mrs. Carleton. With help from a citizen’s fund drive, Mom Carleton opened up two months later on September 2, just in time to feed the current crop of the four generations who had gratefully escaped dormitory food by lunching at her small wood-frame house.
Mrs. Carleton has never advertised or even placed a sign out front. There’s no need with her fried chicken, steak, meat loaf, squash, green beans, corn, and cabbage. Her vegetables come from Safeway, meat from the D&M Meat Company, and desserts and rolls from Mom’s kitchen. She rises daily at 5:30 a.m. to start the lunch fixings and prepare breakfast. The forty seats are filled for lunch and supper, especially on Wednesdays when her pan-fried chicken and luscious cream gravy help “my boys” forget the latest Aggie joke.
Mom’s Dining Room/ 1207 E. 25th, Bryan/ Open 6 a.m.-8 a.m.; 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; 5 p.m.-7 p.m. Closed Sunday / $1.75.
Mrs. Bromley’s Dining Room
Ruby Mae Bromley started feeding strangers when the folks at Clarendon College needed a place for the basketball team to eat. When the Clarendon College forwards began to resemble fullbacks, she thought other folks might like her cooking. Twenty years later, Mrs. Bromley still gets up at five o’clock to start the biscuits and rolls, prepare the seven vegetables, and begin the work for the best pan-fried chicken of any of the seven family-style food temples.
The best of the seven costs the most ($5.25) and is the most inaccessible for the majority of Texans. Clarendon is near Amarillo, not far from Colorado. Recently, some Dallas big eaters couldn’t wait any longer. They rented a Cessna, landed at a private airport near Clarendon’s city dump, and hitched to Mrs. Bromley’s on the back of the town garbage truck. The Royal Order of the Leek and Onion to those hearties.
Their just reward was fresh black-eyed peas, squash, corn, greens, fried chicken, ham, roast, six or seven salads, and homemade rolls so light they could have been bench-pressed by a gnat. After all this came Mrs. Bromley’s famous dessert: fresh strawberry shortcake. After taking on all that cargo, no one, including the Dallas sharpies, knew what to say when Ms. Clara Mae Carter, one of Texas’ fastest waitresses, pleaded, “Fill your plate again. Here’s three different hot vegetables.”
Mrs. Bromley’s Dining Room/ 702 S. Carhart, Clarendon/ Open 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m., except Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Tuesday/ $5.25.
Allen’s Family-Style Meals
“Only the Word of God is more up-to-date than our every-hour-on-the-hour news bulletins. And now funeral notices from the Dickens-Matador-Crosbyton High Plains Golden Triangle,” the radio crooned. Ah, back in West Texas, no doubt about that, headed toward Sweetwater for Saturday lunch at Mrs. Allen’s. The enticing specialty is fried chicken.
For 25 years Mrs. Lizzie Allen has dished up food for customers in Sweetwater, first at the freight depot location down on Broadway and Oak and now out on East Broadway. It’s popular, all right. On this Saturday, her parking lot contains the highest pickup truck per capita population in Nolan County, maybe Taylor County, too.
Inside, tables of beefy ranchers and their wives silently lay waste to the nine vegetables (okra, green beans, red beans, squash, buttered potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, hominy, noodles); five salads (potato, cole slaw, combination, pea, fruit); and a whole coop’s worth of fried chicken. Lest we forget, there is also barbecue and roast beef.
Alas, Mrs. Allen admitted fresh vegetables were too expensive and now she had to use frozen or canned. Still, the squash was special (honey added?) and the salads, except the combination, were dreamy. The famed fried chicken rated only an average. Pan-frying with less flour would carry the day. But remember you are in Sweetwater, a town not exactly surrounded by amber waves of grain and lush vegetable gardens. Count your blessings and pass the squash.
Allen’s Family-Style Meals/ 1301 E. Broadway, Sweetwater/ Open 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday/ $2.75.