By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine
Thirty years ago, when we started writing about the colorful, cheap, and unpretentious restaurants that anchored communities across the country, we suspected we were documenting the end of an era. Most of them had been around forever, and they served exemplary local specialties. But American food seemed to be moving in two directions: deluxe fare made by creative chefs for the elite and institutional fast food for everybody else. Roadfood, we were sure, would become as quaint as the glass milk bottle.
When the Loveless Motel and Cafe, on the outskirts of Nashville, was sold two years ago to a guy who had made his fortune as a movie set caterer, we figured we had yet another reason to despair. Since Lon and Annie Loveless opened it in 1951, the red-checked-tablecloth restaurant had built a stellar reputation for Tennessee ham, pan fried chicken, biscuits, and gravy—not exactly Hollywood health food. Would the Loveless soon be history along with such erstwhile destinations as Ma Groover’s Pig ’N’ Plate in Valdosta, Georgia (for cracklin’ corn biscuits), and Shirley’s Dining Room in Skowhegan, Maine (for farmhouse chowder)? These are the kinds of places that helped us define not just roadfood but an America brimming with character and local color. One thing’s for sure, the two-lanes have changed dramatically. We miss the unpredictability of the roadside before it became a Möbius strip mall of Starbucks, Olive Gardens, Red Lobsters, Outbacks, Wal-Marts, and Kmarts. Between meals, we have always made a point of finding eccentric attractions that confirm survival of personality in an increasingly homogeneous landscape: an obsessive folk-art Garden of Eden, one man’s museum of medical anomalies, yesterday’s House of Tomorrow (a poured-concrete Xanadu with a remote-control stove made of once chic avocado enamel), a dead guy in Kansas whose last will and testament instructed that he be mummified and put on display for visitors to contemplate.
Some of the restaurants we discovered were just as kooky. At the City Café in Abilene, Kansas, where the angel food cake was indeed angelic, owner Iola Burgraff testified that she had seen the late President Nixon float into town and point out a bonanza of crude oil in the ground just behind the kitchen where she made chicken and dumplings. Craw-fordville, Georgia’s eighty-something Mrs. Bonner, proprietor of Mrs. Bonner’s Cafe and baker of the best sweet-potato pie we’ve ever had, kept a broom handy to chase out customers she felt weren’t well mannered. At Potter’s Hot Links in Pittsburg, Texas, we ate taut sausages off butcher paper at a plank table facing a floor fan the size of a B-36 propeller. It blew air with such force that the room full of diners looked like roller coaster riders on a downhill plunge.
Most such places are gone, often because the spawn of a national franchise moved to town and ran them out of business. But here is why we’re not slitting our wrists: The onslaught of soulless fast food has been balanced by a resurgence of appetite for regional food served at restaurants with real character. It is actually easier today than it was a quarter century ago to find cafés serving Lowcountry creamy grits or drive-ins pouring High Plains huckleberry milkshakes. Formerly parochial items like Buffalo wings and chimichangas are everywhere, and local esoterica are readily available in their natural habitats: Whoopie Pies in Maine, five-way chili in Cincinnati, pepperoni rolls in West Virginia, gâteau sirop in the Louisiana bayous. Far from fading away, roadfood is burgeoning. Sure, we lament the many good old restaurants that have gone under, but we rejoice in those that survive in the care of a new generation who sustain what is now appreciated as local culture. And new roadfood restaurants open all the time.
Who would expect that some of the best barbecued meats west of Chicago now can be found in Aloha, Oregon (a suburb of Beaverton, itself a suburb of Portland)? Reo Varnado, who learned to slow-smoke pork over fruitwood while growing up in a family with 27 siblings in Magnolia, Mississippi, came to the Northwest and opened Reo’s Ribs five years ago. He still gets his sauce’s essential ingredient back in Mississippi. Reo’s spare ribs are weighted with meat that tugs from the bone in thick ribbons, and soul food side dishes include collard and mustard greens, red beans and rice, corn bread, and crisp-fried okra.
On the subject of roadfood created by unlikely cooks in unexpected places, consider Gary Zemola in Fairfield, Connecticut. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America and employed as chef in one of the state’s most esteemed high-ticket Italian restaurants, Gary craved to run a diner. Unable to afford a classic streamliner, he found a decrepit food-service truck and reinvented it as Super Duper Weenie. Now a permanent building just off of I-95, Gary’s dream come true has become America’s foremost tutorial in wienerology, featuring consummate variations on the theme: a Chicagoan (lettuce, tomato, mustard, celery salt, relish, pickle), a Californian (chili, onions, cheese, relish), a New Yorker (sauerkraut, red onion sauce, mustard, relish), and the signature dish, a New Englander, which is topped with the neighborhood’s traditional condiment constellation of sauerkraut, bacon, mustard, sweet relish, and raw onion.
And yippee! Our worry about the Loveless Motel and Cafe was wrong. The new owner, Tom Morales, bought the Loveless because he loves it. He has always loved it, from his boyhood in Nashville when he used to come with his family for fried chicken dinner and a swim in the nearby Harpeth River. He has kept the same staff, including Carol Fay Ellison, who’s been making biscuits for the last quarter century; several of the waitresses are second- and third-generation employees. Country ham and skillet-fried chicken still star on the menu, but are now supplemented by pulled pork made in a smokehouse Morales built because of his own lifelong passion for barbecue. A dessert menu has been added, for which pastry chef Alisa Huntsman makes the time-honored Deep South favorite, banana pudding ribboned with vanilla wafers. But in this case, the cookies are freshly baked.
Last summer, we visited with Morales in the restaurant he has revived. “We might now be sitting in a McDonald’s or a Hardee’s,” he said with genuine dread in his voice. That was the destiny of the property when the family that had run it since 1973 put it up for sale. The Loveless Motel and Cafe is on a lucrative piece of real estate; the plan was to transform it into a retail cluster zoned for two fast-food outlets. Morales felt obliged to step in. “I couldn’t bear to see it lost,” he said. “As fast paced as our world is today, people don’t have time to make biscuits from scratch, to make their own preserves, or to make red-eye gravy. We need to maintain those things as they have been passed down generation to generation. To me, the Loveless Cafe is an important piece of Tennessee history. There’s no place else like it in the world.”
With this kind of caretaking, roadfood’s future is rosy.