“I don’t want to cook.”
“Let’s go out to eat.”
“Okay. Where should we go?”
“What are you in the mood for?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to eat?”
“I don’t know. You decide.”
Does this sound familiar? Deciding which restaurant to patronize can be agonizing. Starvation may occur before the question of where to eat is resolved. There are many factors to consider when choosing a restaurant. The big one concerns the type of food served. In Minneapolis or St. Paul, Minnesota, vast varieties of American-style and ethnic foods are served. In Morrison County, burgers and fries, pizza, Chinese, chicken, tacos, home-style, fish, soup and sandwich, and steak are all possibilities. Personal taste and compromise are the solutions to selecting a restaurant based on food.
Sometimes a restaurant is chosen for its atmosphere, that mix of decoration, lighting, and space arrangement that defines a place. Atmosphere in restaurants can range from elegant to down-home to self-service to seedy. Elegant restaurants have uniformed servers, table linens, candlelight, and saucers under the coffee cups. Down-home restaurants have more casually dressed servers, silverware rolled in paper napkins, plain china, and plastic-coated tablecloths, or no tablecloths at all. Self-service restaurants (fast food falls into this category) have trays with foam or paper plates, plastic utensils, and paper napkins and cups. They also require customers to bus their own tables. Seedy restaurants cause one to ask, “Why hasn’t the Health Department shut this place down?” In addition to these, there are quirky restaurants with artsy decorations that don’t fit any particular mode; they’re just fun. Morrison County restaurants fall into all except the seedy category. (And, if someone finds a seedy one, don’t call me, call the Health Department.)
Cost is another factor in choosing a restaurant. If one has only a few dollars, a five-star, full-service, read-the-menu-at-the-door restaurant is immediately out of the equation. The field is narrowed to down-home, self-service, or . . . yech! . . . seedy. Some down-home restaurants serve big portions at small prices. A friendly waitress can make this option an even better deal. With self-service restaurants, beware of fast food. Sometimes one has to order so much for a meal that the five-star restaurant looks like a bargain. As for the seedy restaurant, no matter how cheap the food, the emergency room visit later will far offset the savings.
Food, atmosphere and cost are all factors we consider today when trying to find a restaurant. They were taken into consideration by people of yesteryear, too, but eating out was not a regular way of life for the earliest Morrison County generations. Between 1850 and 1910, there weren’t as many choices for dining out in the county as there are today. Most people prepared food at home. In the 1892 Little Falls Directory, there are only five restaurants listed as opposed to ten grocery stores. By 1928, there are seventeen restaurants and forty-seven grocers named in the Little Falls/Morrison County Directory. The ratio of restaurants to grocery stores doesn’t change until around 1960. The local yellow pages show a total of twenty-two restaurants and night clubs versus nineteen retail grocers. By 1980, there are thirty-three restaurants and sixteen grocers. (While studying directories and yellow pages ads may not show all existing businesses, trends, such as an increase in dining out, are apparent.)
By far, the most popular type of food offered in Morrison County restaurants was “home cooking”. Restaurants that served “home-cooked” meals included Orville & Ann’s Café in Swanville (1950), Don’s Café in Royalton (1960), Ruby’s Café in Little Falls (1960), Jerry’s Café in Royalton (1970), the Star Café in Pierz (1970), the Red Fox Restaurant in Royalton (1980), and the Falls Café in Little Falls (1980). Pastries and pies that were “home made” were also selling points for restaurants such as the Royal Café in Little Falls (1950) and the Hub Café in Little Falls (1960).
Other types of food available in past Morrison County restaurants included “good electric cooking” at Sand’s Café (1940), “our famous steaks” at Jardine’s Café (1950), chili con carne at the Black & White Hamburger Shop (1950), pizza and Italian spaghetti at J & J Pizza House (1960), chicken at Dick’s Broiler and Rush’s Chicken Shack (1970), “pizza, submarine sandwiches, hamburgers, and Mexican foods” at Lucky Bea’s Restaurant & Pizza (1980), and “steaks, seafood, and our succulent prime rib” at Jolly Jack’s Restaurant (1990/91). Of course, these restaurants had full menus and served more than what was mentioned in the yellow pages. The Towne Deli in Little Falls offered a menu that was a bit more unusual. Advertising “healthy eating in a mellow atmosphere” in 1970, their menu included “whole grain foods, vegetarian entrees, kosher corn beef and pastrami, herb teas, sprouts, home baked bread, and hot popovers.” By far, the strangest food offered in Morrison County was turtle, served Fridays in 1970 at two Pierz, Minnesota, restaurants, the Pierz Café and Main Street Café.
Morrison County restaurants had a variety of atmospheres. Part of the atmosphere of a restaurant is in its name. In 1892, all of the restaurants in Little Falls were named for their owners. There was E. F. Anderson & Co., Joseph Buckman, Fabrini & Co., George W. Hall, and G. C. Raymond. By 1907/08, people were showing a bit more creativity in naming their restaurants. In addition to restaurants named for owners, the Halfway Restaurant and The Star arose. From then until now, there remain many restaurants named for owners, probably because of all those “home-cooked” meals served. Restaurants such as Tony’s Place in Buckman, Tillie’s Koffee Kabin in Little Falls, and Blanche’s Café in Motley all sound welcoming and homey. Restaurants with other types of names call to mind different atmospheres. The President Café in Little Falls sounds quite dignified. The name White Front Café describes the building in which the restaurant was located in Little Falls.
Restaurants that were associated with hotels tended to be a bit more formal than others. The Buckman Hotel in Little Falls was elegant in decoration and hosted grand events such as balls and fetes. On March 31, 1894, the Little Falls Daily Transcript reported the following: “Mr. Chambers has just completed his work on the Hotel Buckman dining room and it is now handsomely decorated. The ceiling is in eight panels, and he has frescoed it in four different styles, the work on all of them testifying to his ability as an artist. The scene painted above the fire place is his work as is also the handsomely carved frame which surrounds it. It has taken him some time to complete it but it is well done and the Buckman dining room is one of the handsomest that can be found in any hotel in the Northwest.” After the hotel burned in January 1901, it was rebuilt. The elegance was recreated. “The dining room [was] furnished with golden oak chairs and tables, and sideboard of golden oak, colonial design.” (LFDT – July 22, 1901)
The Elk’s Hotel, which opened in 1923, also had a reputation for fine décor and dining. When the hotel reopened in 1939 as the Pine Edge Inn, the Little Falls Daily Transcript reported on the dining room design. The room had been painted a cream color. “Drapes of white and green [were] especially tailored for the colonial windows. Table cloths of gold with white linen napkins [were] provided for each table.” (LFDT – May 27, 1939)
As for the décor of informal restaurants, after a 1946 remodeling, Bell’s Café sported “new electrical cooking equipment, inlaid linoleum flooring, fluorescent lighting throughout, [and] new birch-wood booths in natural finish.” (LFDT – April 21, 1971 – 25 Years Ago) When the Jardine Café burned, it was remodeled in 1941. “Jardine’s café has been improved with tileboard walls and ceiling and an inlaid linoleum floor. Booths have been refinished, kitchen equipment replaced, and a steam table added for serving regular meals.” (LFDT – November 23, 1966 – 25 Years Ago)
And, finally, past county residents had to worry about the cost of eating out. The City Café in Little Falls offered chicken dinners for sixty-five cents and a business men’s lunch for thirty-five cents. How this compares to other meals at the time is not known, but it sure sounds like a good deal now.
All this talk about food and restaurants makes one hungry. Let’s go out to eat.
by Mary Warner
Copyright 2003, Morrison County Historical Society