Eating at Cafeterias

Postcard for Ontra Cafeterias, a Los Angeles chain

Some of my memories hit home with most Boomers. Some of them are only related to by a few. Today’s recollection could go either way.

Growing up in the 60’s we ate at cafeterias all over the country. When we traveled, dad would keep his eye out for a cafeteria in strange towns. When we went to Tulsa, it meant eating at a local cafeteria there called Borden’s. I have countless memories of standing in a line very similar to the one in school and telling the lady on the other side what I wanted.

And the fact that I see cafeterias today loaded with folks in the same generation as that of our parents, I suspect that the orderly eateries were a big hit with many WWII veterans besides my father.

Though I ate at many, many cafeterias growing up, they never cast the spell of intrigue over me that they did to my dad. There’s something about picking out items of food with prices attached to them that is unappealing to me. Now all-you-can-eat buffets, that’s another matter.

But the classic pay-as-you-go cafeteria was the ultimate eating spot for my father, surprising to me seeing how he was so thrifty. I mean having your bill get larger with every selected item must have HURT!

Inside an Aussie cafeteria of the 60’s

Cafeterias arose in California, being a popular dining facility in Mexico. Immigrants founded and frequented the serverless restaurants in their new country, and they caught on with everyone else.

They became a big hit in the South in the 50’s and 60’s. Once upon a time many chains existed, including Morrison’s, Blue Bear, and Britling. I was surprised in researching this piece that the Borden’s Cafeteria in Tulsa was apparently a stand-alone eatery. It sure seemed like a chain to me. I grew up assuming that they were affiliated with Borden’s dairy products. I learn something new every day!

Indeed, my father’s passion for cafeterias may well have been planted by his parents, because they were a growing phenomenon from the 20’s onward.

Nowadays, the classic cafeteria I remember is becoming less and less common. They still have their ardent supporters, though, although it seems they are getting older and thinner in numbers.

Oh well. It’s happening to us, too.

Some day, my son may be writing in his “I Remember the Exxon Valdez” blog about how his old man always had a passion for Olive Garden, the dwindling chain known for its elderly customers ;-).

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