Friday, January 13, 2017

Eateries of Memory

Thinking back over the restaurants and other purveyors of food where I have eaten during my 80 plus years, a number come readily to mind.  They range from eateries of my childhood to one which I have visited just last year.  Some are memorable because of their food.  Others are included here because of personal incidents that come associated with them.  All have a special meaning for me.

A fixture on Toledo’s Madison Avenue for more than 55 years, Bud & Luke’s was established by brother automobile salesmen, Eugene “Bud” and Glenn “Luke” Fowler in the late 1930s.  From the outset the Fowlers tried to give its patron a new restaurant experience, to forget the unhappy times of the Great Depression and World War II.  The waiters were famous for their antics, making wisecracks about customers, banging on pots and pans, and leading sing-a-longs.
The maitre d’ shortened the tie of one of our neighbors with a scissors, alleging that it was too long.  My father took me there for lunch once when I was seven.  Holding court there was “Bucky” the dwarf Buckeye Beer mascot on roller-skates but I was too shy to shake his hand.  The restaurant closed in December 1996.

When I was barely a teenager, the family went to California to visit relatives.  While we were there my aunt took my mother, brother and me for lunch to the Brown Derby, a famous Hollywood restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard.  It was famous for attracting movie stars and other celebrities.  For a green kid from Toledo it was a big thrill and while we craned our necks to find a household name or two, we glimpsed only “wannabes.”  Too young for the hard stuff we watched as our mother and aunt downed highballs.  They must have been potent.  The ladies giggled all the way home. 
I have always had a soft spot for the Diary Queen.  Although the well-known chain first began in Joliet, Illinois, in 1940, an outlet did not arrive in Toledo until after World War II.  Their soft ice cream products were a revelation.  My favorite confection was their fresh blueberry shake when the fruit was available.  It still makes my mouth water.  Dairy Queen so impressed my father, who always was looking to abandon dentistry for something else, that he seriously considered investing in a franchise.  That sounded good to my brother and me, both still in high school, until it became clear we were to work there and Mom would do the cooking.  All three of us objected and Dad went back to looking down people’ mouths all day.  

About 1900, Richard Becker, a Milwaukee restauranteur, decided to transform an vacant Methodist church adjacent to the Pabst Brewery into a saloon called the Forst-Keller.  Then he wrote the famous axe—swinging prohibitionist, Carrie Nation, inviting her to visit.  In jail in Topeka, Kansas for another rampage, she replied that “When I come to Milwaukee I will give you a call. I will bring my hatchet and will make souvenirs of that hell hole.”  Mrs. Nation never came and the Forst-Keller was still in business when I arrived in Milwaukee and, of drinking age, made it my favorite watering hole.  The food was good, the beer fresh from Pabst, and the ambiance “Gemütlichkeit.”  It closed in September 1973 but recently steps have been taken to re-open its hallowed doors.

My work frequently has taken me to Hawaii, often with companions.  Almost immediately after landing — usually about midnight at our take-off location but late afternoon in Honolulu — we headed for the Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach.  Awaiting us is the famed rum drink, a pu pu platter of chicken sate’, spare ribs, egg rolls, skewered beef, crab rangoon and other delectables, and graceful Hawaiian song and dance while the sun set over the Pacific — a perfect way to end a 10 hour airplane flight. 

For a while my work required trips to Paris on a regular basis, staying in the 16th Arrondissement.  Just around the corner from my hotel, almost perched on the banks of the Seine River once day I found a small neighborhood restaurant all dressed out in yellow.  Appropriately it was called “Le Tournesol,” or “The Sunflower.”  The ambiance inside was cozy and the food delicious, the menu a simple one that features French favorite.  I could not get there often enough.  In recent years it has been updated and given an art deco look.  Informants assure me that the meals are still top notch.

In contrast to the relatively obscure Le Tournesol is the Brasserie Ile Saint Louis, a popular spot that sits at the southern end of an island in the middle of Paris and the Seine River.  It is popular with the sporting crowd.  My memory is not of the food but of bringing my goddaughter for dinner there just after the British ruby team had bested the French at a local pitch. In a boisterous mood, dozens of British fans invaded the place, harassing the chefs, and bothering the customers until the owner mounted a table and threatened to call in the gendarme.  My only thought was what I would tell the girl’s parents when we were hauled off in a raid.  Fortunately the threat worked, the Brits calmed down, and we ate in peace. 

German food also can be delicious.  My father, a short ordercook in his youth, always proclaimed Milwaukee’s Karl Ratzsch’s as the best restaurant in which he had ever eaten.  Over subsequent years, I have enjoyed many excellent meals there — liver dumpling soup, wiener schnitzel, roast goose, port chops — the list goes on and on.  Dessert was always German schaum tort, that is, egg whites whipped to a froth, baked until stiff and then filled with a syrup of strawberries.  Ratzsch’s also served good drinks.  I had quaffed more than enough free martinis one afternoon at a motion picture promotion at the restaurant when my boss on the Milwaukee Sentinel summoned me back to the office to drive him to another story.  How I did it — and he never knew — is still a mystery to me.

Memphis is the place for barbecue, the tourist brochures tell us.  I agree.  Shown here is the front — not the back — of the Rendezvous, a ribs joint extraordinaire.  The exhaust fans and smoke stacks are aimed directly at the public, wafting the smell of charcoal ribs out into the public way.  My hotel was directly across the way and I was drawn like a humming bird to a honeysuckle bush into its folds.  The dry rub ribs, the house specialty, were so delicious that I ate there for the two nights and would have gone back for a third but had to leave Memphis.
In order not to dwell entirely on the past, for my last memorable eatery, I have chose L’ Auberge Chez Francois.  This famous eatery in the rolling hills of Northern Virginia was located in downtown Washington, D.C., when I first arrived some 55 years ago.  It was my introduction to good French food.  Then the restaurant moved from the District to the hinterlands.  Through friends my wife and I recently were reintroduced to the “Chez” and dine there on special occasions.   A photograph of the former restaurant is on the wall and I never fail to look at it with more than a touch of nostalgia for days gone by.

Nostalgia is an appropriate way to end a piece about these ten eateries.  Bud and Luke’s, The Brown Derby, and the Forst-Keller long since have shut their  doors.  Dairy Queen exists today usually as initials.  Ratzsch’s declined after being sold by the family.  Others like the Mai Tai Bar and Chez Francois have maintained their special qualities over the years.  All continue to come to mind from time to time as special places.

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