Life in middle America in the 1950’s was care-free and casual. It was a wonderful time to be a teen because people were positive, our nation had survived and won the greatest war we had ever fought against Germany and Japan (World War II), the economy was rebuilding and the future looked bright. During those years I don’t remember feeling all that positive about my future since I was an ordinary teenager with what I considered major concerns for the present.
My anxieties centered on my hair (did I have the right amount of Butch Wax applied to keep my flat-top hair upright?), my skin (did I have any new and undetected pimples which would permanently scar my face?), and my size (was there anything I could do to add pounds to my skinny frame?). Like many of my teen friends I also wasn’t very happy about my home town El Dorado, Arkansas because the town seemed so boring with “nothing to do.” I dreamed of living in a big city like Little Rock or Dallas where life would be full of excitement and adventure on a daily basis. Despite these huge potentials for life failure there were some very positive elements to life in El Dorado, and I was aware of them and grateful. One positive was the seemingly large number of great places to eat.
North West Avenue (known then as “the Strip”) was the address of many of the finest dining choices El Dorado offered in the 50’s. The favorite hangout for teens and young adults was the Dairyette located on a large lot on the east side of North West Avenue where Mellor Park Mall now sits. The aging drive-in was owned by Jack Smith to whom I was never introduced, but am certain I recognized him then. There was a pinball machine inside and a jukebox connected to outside speakers which were constantly blaring. The burgers and fries were outstanding, but the attraction was the crowds and not the food. Seemingly the coolest teens and young adults stopped by each day if just for a short visit. Someone told me the Dairyette was the one place in town to get “dope.” I believed they were talking about marijuana, but I never saw nor smelled anyone smoking it. This was at least ten years prior to marijuana use becoming widespread. The two biggest vices for teens in the 50’s were cigarettes and beer, and one couldn’t buy beer at the Dairyette.
Further out North West Ave. toward Smackover was my favorite restaurant, The Old Hickory. It was located on the land where Oriental Gardens now sits. The restaurant was owned by the Parker family, and their daughter Patty was in my high school class of 1957. I don’t remember ever seeing her there, because I was looking for those delicious barbecue beef sandwiches with their famous baked beans in their signature brown bowls. The Old Hickory was one of the few restaurants in town with curb service, so my family seldom dined inside. One could buy bottles of their barbecue sauce and replicate the Old Hickory taste at home. However, no matter how well Mom prepared barbecue sandwiches, they just never tasted as good as the Parker’s. (I never said those words to Mom).
Driving south from there on North West Avenue was the best place for ice cream, the Dairy Queen. It was located on the property where Andy’s Restaurant now sits. The Frazier family owned the restaurant, and their only daughter Dixie was also a member of my graduating high school class. Mr. and Mrs. Frazier were always friendly to me, and when I happened to be alone in the restaurant for a burger or a milk shake, the conversation usually centered on what Dixie was thinking and how well (or even how poorly) she was doing in school. This is the first restaurant in which I experienced soft serve ice cream, and to this day I’m convinced it was the best. One of their chocolate milk shakes was a supreme treat, and as many of them as I drank I’m surprised I was so skinny then.
When our family was hungry for a steak or a hamburger steak our number one choice was Lloyd’s Stadium Drive Inn. Located on North West Avenue (where else?) directly across the street from the Boy’s Club baseball field the restaurant was owned by Lloyd McCarty who was a long time pal of Pop. Lloyd had learned to cook steaks and burgers on the locally famous “Hamburger Row” during the El Dorado oil boom days of the 1920’s. He was relatively short in height, (shorter than the Moore men who were all over 6 feet) and had a particularly characteristic shuffle to his gait. I never saw him without his signature white butcher’s apron with the large greasy spot in front. Pop said the shuffle was characteristic of all the cooks on Hamburger Row, but I never understood the reason for it.
Lloyd’s steaks were absolutely the best tasting steaks in town. The hamburger steak was also a favorite. Lloyd’s featured a steak sandwich which he called the “Jack Perry Special,” and one of those three items were my only choices. Obviously the sandwich was the only item which Mr. Perry ordered, and he was a frequent enough customer to have his name attached to it. Pop always said the key to the special taste of the meats at Lloyd’s was the seasoning of the grill which never looked clean to me.
Pop knew what he was talking about because he had once cooked and even owned a “joint” on Hamburger Row when he was a young adult in his 20’s. One other thing I remember about Lloyd’s Drive Inn is he had a “room in the back” for only a few of his adult men friends. The doors to the room were always shut, so I never entered. Pop said the room was where a select few men could eat and drink liquor. It was against the law to serve liquor in a restaurant, but apparently Lloyd bent the rules for some of his buddies, who reportedly were some of the elected high officials of Union County.
When our family dined out on Sunday our usual choice was the Garrett Hotel dining room. Located on the block now occupied by The First National Bank the hotel had served the town as one of only two downtown hotels. They both opened in the 1920’s during the days of the oil boom. One thing I remember about the hotel besides the dining room food is the lobby which had a large screen television (14 inch), which could pick up channel KNOE from Monroe, Louisiana and occasionally on a clear day, the Little Rock channel KATV. There was a gigantic antenna on the roof of the hotel which allowed for such good reception. The dining room featured a number of delicious entrees but our favorite selection was their chicken and dressing. The giblet gravy had a certain flavor which was unique. Their yeast rolls were outstanding, and no other restaurant in which I dined could come close to their taste. I could easily eat four of them, and if my sister Marilyn wasn’t too hungry I could get one or two of hers. Even though Mom wanted me to gain weight, she said too many yeast rolls were “not good for my stomach.” I never questioned her wisdom on this, but would try to eat a couple of extra ones while she was not watching.
I don’t recall eating out as a primary source of delight as a teen, but in thinking and writing about some of my culinary experiences, I realize I gained early expertise in the art of “fine dining” on North West Avenue. Neither Cathy nor I enjoy fancy restaurants now and are always looking for ordinary cafes or delis with extraordinary dishes. I’m still looking for another joint like Lloyd’s. I would recognize any cook with a shuffle like his.