Local Color: It’s What’s for Dinner

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Country café sandwiches are the next best thing to homemade.
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Shirley's in Overbrook, Kansas, serves a great breakfast.
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Or try a juicy hamburger with a bowl of homemade chili or soup and a slice of fresh-baked pie.
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The Heartland Café in Topeka, Kansas, is a favorite of the GRIT staff.
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Looking for a side order of local news with your bacon and eggs? Then it’s time to saddle up and head for the local café.

Here’s where farmers, ranchers and neighbors meet for breakfast while they discuss global warming, cuss politicians, analyze commodities markets and debate the merits of the high school football team. It’s where farm families stop for lunch during a trip to town, where the hard-hat crowd fills up on comfort food, and where retired folks file in for the senior citizen’s special. And whether you call it a farmer’s café, a country café, or just “the café,” it’s the nerve center of small-town America.

You’ll find one in most small towns. The National Restaurant Association reports there are more than 935,000 restaurant locations in the United States. More than 300,000 of those are fast-food restaurants, while the Top 20 restaurant chains, including brands such as Applebee’s, Denny’s and Outback Steakhouse, account for about 14,000 locations nationwide. That leaves tens of thousands of locally owned, independently operated cafés in communities across the nation. Back Road Cafés of Texas, for example, lists more than 5,000 independent cafés and restaurants in Texas towns with populations of 30,000 or less.

My love affair with small-town cafés began when I was big enough to accompany my dad to the livestock sale barn, and afterwards to the local café for hamburgers and homemade pie. When I was 18, I impressed my future wife by taking her on a “grown-up” date to the Rainbow Café in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. While other teenagers were sharing colas and fries at the drive-in, we dined on chicken fried steaks.

Cafés are not restaurants

A country café is as different from a restaurant as a Hereford is from a Holstein. As a rule of thumb, cafés don’t provide tablecloths, don’t serve beer or liquor, and don’t take reservations. And cafés, unlike most full-service restaurants, almost always serve breakfast. Not just prefab breakfast sandwiches, but big platters of fried eggs, bacon and home fries. French toast and stacks of pancakes dripping with melted butter and maple syrup. Biscuits and gravy, and homemade cinnamon rolls the size of a platter. The conversation about trans fats has been slow arriving at country cafés.

A truck stop may include a café, but a café is not a truckstop. Cafés generally don’t sell diesel or have gift shops offering T-shirts, caps and fancy mud flaps, and few are open 24 hours a day. And while a café parking lot should be big enough to accommodate a pickup truck pulling a horse trailer, it’s seldom spacious enough for an 18-wheeler.

Comfort food in comfortable surroundings

Country cafés invite you to mosey in and make yourself comfortable. Inside, you’ll find scarred-up tables, mismatched dishes and coffee cups, and several styles of chairs. The décor trends toward country collectibles, but jackalopes, steer horns and ropes are popular in the West. At the Corner Café in Riverside, Missouri, you’ll find shelves adorned with ceramic chickens, and an old manure spreader filled with pots of flowers parked just outside the front door.

Folks gravitate to country cafés for traditional comfort food such as hot beef, pork and turkey sandwiches, and chicken fried steaks served with a heaping scoop of mashed potatoes. Or try a juicy hamburger with a bowl of homemade chili or soup and a slice of fresh-baked pie.

If you feel adventuresome, a country café is the place to sample items you’re unlikely to find in a franchised restaurant. You can order calf fries at Lowman’s Café in Smithville, Missouri, and homemade cabbage rolls at the Whistle Stop in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Or try the fried liver and onions in Torrington, Wyoming, catfish with hush puppies and sweet tea in Canton, Mississippi, or the green chile cheeseburger at the Owl Café in San Antonio, New Mexico.

About caps, ties and tattoos

Your meal most likely won’t be delivered by a teenager with body piercings, an exposed navel and visible tattoos. They’re all working down the street at the fast-food joint. Instead, you will be served by an experienced waitress named Martha or June or Sandy, who’s been on the job enough years to get every order right without writing it down, who never has to be asked for a coffee refill, and who knows every regular customer by his or her first name. If you find a man working in a country café, he’s probably either the cook or the dishwasher.

You generally won’t see a suit and tie in a country café unless the local insurance agent wandered in that morning for biscuits and gravy. Instead, the tables fill up with farmers, ranchers and construction workers wearing boots and coveralls splattered with manure or mud. Many of them will be wearing “gimme” caps bearing the names and logos of seed and feed suppliers, trucking companies, and truck and tractor brands. You are not required to remove your hat in a country café.

Save your local café

Young folks consider it a sign of progress when the first fast-food restaurant comes to town. But the downside is that fast-food places can drain business away from the local café. The Rainbow Café from my dating years is long gone, replaced by yet another fast-food drive-through.

A few years ago, I happened to find myself in El Campo, Texas. Rising early the next morning, I set out to find the café where local farmers meet for breakfast. To my astonishment, the only place open for breakfast was a franchised fast-food restaurant. Folks, there’s just something not right about seeing a group of farmers crowded into little plastic booths, eating prefab breakfast sandwiches and drinking fast-food coffee from paper cups.

So next time you feel the urge for a beautiful breakfast or have a yen for a big slab of yearling beefsteak, skip the mass-market mania and head on down to your local café. You’ll be glad you did, and those hard-working hash slingers will appreciate your business. Don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for helping to save yet another waning American icon.

Jerry Schleicher is a country writer and cowboy poet who lives in Parkville, Missouri.

Published on Sep 1, 2007

Grit Magazine

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