Part three of the Seventies Stark-Vegas Summer Series takes us to places for steak, smoke and sophisticated dining. Oh, and Shoney’s.
When it comes to Starkville steaks in the late seventies, two words come to my mind: Western Sizzlin’, which was, I think, the original restaurant in the building where La Terraza is today. In that era, Western Sizzlin’ and their look-alike cousins were more akin to a cafeteria line at Morrison’s than the buffets into which most evolved later. We stood in line, took a tray and a set of napkin-wrapped silverware, chose our dessert, salad, and drink – and at the end of the line we ordered the steak, which was brought to the table shortly thereafter. In my little world, it was a special night when we went to Western Sizzlin’. So special, I cringe to confess, that I actually took a prom date there once. I won’t embarrass the young lady or her family by naming names, but, yes – we really did stand in line, I in my best suit, she in her cocktail dress and wrist corsage, pushing our trays down the track. Sometimes you just have to shake your head and sigh. My only consolation was that there were many other prom-goers in line with us that night. You know who you are. I guess I was just too young to know better – or even more likely, it was just the only place a tenth-grader mowing lawns could afford. Thankfully, by the time I was a senior we had Harvey’s, where I felt much less out of place in my tuxedo.
Western Sizzlin’ wasn’t the only steak place, of course – just the one with the most personal memories. Several readers have written to remind me of the Golden West and Bonanza, and for a brief period you could get a good slab of meat at Heath’s Smokehouse just west of town out on old Highway 82.
When it comes to barbecue, Starkville has come a long way since the seventies. Today we have such a wealth of great places to indulge in smoky, tender “other white meat”, it is hard to imagine the dearth of barbecue joints thirty-plus years ago. I guess having two Coleman’s seemed like enough, one on each east-west highway. If you came out of Pizza King smelling like pizza, you definitely came out of Coleman’s smelling like smoke and sauce. And that’s not such a bad thing.
I don’t think my family will mind my admitting that we didn’t find ourselves eating out too often in the fine dining establishments in those days. Keep in mind that I was between three and thirteen years old during the seventies, and my brother was three years younger. It’s a wonder we got to go to anywhere but Sonic. But I do remember Michael’s. One of my Sunday School teachers at the time happened to be married to Michael, and we thought we were uptown folks on the night our class went out to dinner there. I was fairly well-connected at Michael’s, come to think of it – two of my buddies traded nights as dishwashers – not exactly an uptown job, per se, but it was still cool to know someone who worked there. Michael’s was first a house, then a restaurant, and is now apartments, but the restaurant lives on in the corner of my parents’ living room by way of the pub table they bought when it closed.
Truth be told, fine dining for our family was more along the lines of Shoney’s and Captain D’s. I’d almost forgotten that my father was a preferred shopper for the Shoney’s family of restaurants. We thought he was big stuff to have been asked by Big Boy and the Captain to come once a month and eat their food for free. The Big Boy Burger was famous, but for me it was more about choosing dessert: hot fudge cake or strawberry pie. At Captain D’s, my main interest was in the crunchies at the bottom of the basket, and I also developed a peculiar taste for malt vinegar. Captain D’s has held its ground, but now there is a bank where Big Boy used to stand on Highway 12, a giant hamburger held high above his head.
When it comes to family fare in that genre, others who were older than me in that decade may also remember The Derby, The Plaza, The People’s Café, and more – I was just too little to appreciate them before they closed. The Starkville Café was already operating by that time, too, and is still going strong under the leadership of one of those former Michael’s dishwashers.
Next time, the spotlight will be on international food, chicken under glass, and the best chocolate chip cookie in the SEC. Stay hungry.