Our Parents’ Favorite Restaurants

Chicken Annie’s, Girard, Kansas

One of the most sacred rituals that I recall from my childhood was that of getting into the car and driving, sometimes over an hour, to a favorite restaurant. The delicious saturated-fat laden food was a particular delight to my parents, who could remember the very lean times of the Great Depression.

So perhaps once a month, we would pile into the Plymouth and head for locations like Chicken Annie’s, or Wilder’s, or the AQ Chicken House.

All three of these fine eateries are still around, I’m happy to say. Perhaps they have altered their menus to provide more health-conscious options, perhaps not. But they are still plugging away, providing unique cuisine that flies in the face of the plethora of generic chains that have become a part of our lives. And Boomers, that should make you smile. After all, if I can quickly come up with three examples of local eateries that have survived since the 60’s, I’ll bet you can too.

Wilder’s Steak House, Joplin, Missouri

Now I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with chains like Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, or Shogun. Indeed, there is much to love about the sameness and predictability of the franchise restaurant, especially when you are on the road and hungry.

But the unique eating places of our youth were very much savored by our parents, who faithfully returned again and again, sometimes driving an hour or more to get there. After all, they found out by trial and error that they were worth visiting. Perhaps the grapevine at work or at the beauty shop revealed that there was a place in Springdale, Arkansas, accessible only by narrow, curvy Arkansas roads, that served the best fried chicken this side of Alabama.

At any rate, our parents loved their favorite restaurants. And we kids loved it when they would take us along. This was a special treat for me, because it was much more common for them to leave me home on Saturday nights in the care of my older brother while they headed off to Joplin, thirty miles away, to feast at Wilder’s.

I also recall nice-looking eating spots that my parents avoided like the plague. Why was that? Was the food questionable? Was the staff less than pleasant? Was the atmosphere wrong?

Postcard adverting the A.Q. Chicken House

I doubt that the latter was the case, because many of the often-visited places featured undecorated white walls, or ugly faded art prints of cowboy scenes, or water-stained ceilings. Clearly, chic ambiance was NOT the thing that drew my parents back again and again..

I recall pulling into the AQ Chicken House driveway about 1967 and seeing a dilapidated-looking building, with old barn wood everywhere. But there was also hardly a place to park. My parents would feast on the chicken, but my favorite was the batter-dipped french fries. Oh, the decadent delight!

Chicken Annie’s was another humble-looking spot, a half-hour drive from home. Sitting out in the middle of nowhere, it too drew a crowd of commuters who couldn’t care less about atmosphere, and who found its food too good to resist.

Wilder’s in Joplin was founded in the year that the stock market crashed, and has managed to survive lots of economic ups and downs since then. Sadly, such was not the case with Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse (although the late Mick still has his name on a trendy New York eatery) and Rafters, which featured a huge fire-breathing dragon sign. I was completely spellbound as that neon-lit beast would spew out flames from its mouth every minute or so, illuminating the black Joplin Saturday night and burning itself indelibly into the memory banks of a rapt seven-year-old.

How about you? What favorite eating spots of your childhood are still around? Here’s hoping you can still visit your own personal equivalent of Chicken Annie’s, Wilder’s, or the AQ Chicken House.

The Shoe Store

Vintage shoe store on Main Street

Kids grow fast, and so do their feet. That means that most of us Boomers made frequent trips to the shoe store while we were growing up.

I say MOST of us, because those of us who had an older sibling just ahead of us instead received hand-me-downs.

But that wasn’t the case with me. My older brother was ten years older than me, and it might as well have been a hundred, such was the gap between six and sixteen.

Ergo, I experienced frequent trips to the shoe store on Miami, Oklahoma’s Main Street.

That, of course, was where a kid could obtain P.F. Flyers. That was decidedly cool. But it was also where I would obtain dress shoes for church. Not nearly so cool.

The first thing that you noticed about the show store was the wonderful aroma. It was a heavenly nasal concoction consisting of a combination of leather, rubber, cigarette smoke, the salesman’s cologne, and perhaps some fresh floor wax.

The first thing the salesman would do is have me sit down so he could measure my feet.

Brannock Device

I never had a clue what the hoogus was called that he would use to calculate the exact size that my sock-clad foot required. In researching this column I learned that it’s known as a Brannock Device, and it is still proudly made in the USA.

Anyhow, the tool was slightly scary to me when I was very young, but I soon learned to relax, as there was absolutely no pain involved in its use. Instead, it came to feel reassuring to have the familiar device, well-worn from years of use, applied firmly against the bottom of my foot. It meant that in the topsy-turvy world in which I lived, one thing could absolutely be counted on: my shoes fitting perfectly. Of course, that took into account the leaving of an extra inch of growing room in the toes.

The Brannock tool was fun to play with while my mom shopped for a pair of shoes for herself, which always took a lot longer than it did to select mine. More entertainment was provided by the angled mirrors that were designed to show a customer just what their potential new shoes looked like from the side. And the little bench the salesman sat on had wire runners for legs that made it perfect to push one’s self around on the carpeted floor of the sales area, pretending to ride a sleigh.

Despite the Brannock tool having been around for ages, my elder brothers might possibly have gone through a more accurate, if not dangerous fitting procedure.

X-ray machine found in 1950’s shoe stores

Beginning in the 1930’s, portable fluoroscopes began showing up in shoe stores. The devices would bombard customers’ feet with a twenty second or longer exposure to pure X-rays!

The fluoroscopes grew in popularity over the years, and many of the more senior members of the Boomer generation can recall getting their feet X-rayed at the shoe store on a regular basis.

Many of the devices had three settings for men, women, and children. You would put your feet into a slot on the front of the machine while standing, and the exposure would begin. You could then peer through the viewer (there were three, one for you, one for the salesman, and one for mom) and see your feet’s bones on a green screen, ghostily surrounded by the shoes.

By the 60’s, the devices had fallen out of favor, so no exposure to X-rays at the shoe store for me.

Nowadays, visiting the shoe store is still a pleasant experience. That great aroma is still there, minus the cigarette smoke. Those angled mirrors still do the trick for side views. And some stores even have a Brannock tool for me to play with while my wife takes her own sweet time to pick out the perfect pair of shoes.