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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Eat Your Heart Out

By Kendall Boggs, Staff Writer & Sid Riley

When one drives down the main streets of Marianna, he cannot fail to note the roadsides are today littered with fast food establishments, adding to that "Instant Gratification" ideology of today’s world. However, there was a time before Ronald, Wendy, the King, the Colonel, and the Captain took over, when restaurants had a real substance and provided an elegant and/or fun atmosphere.
Unfortunately, times change and so do expectations. Although the American Dream is still a plausible goal, we tend to want it on "our" time. We as people of today’s society are so used to having things sped up to our pace that maybe we just don’t appreciate what older generations prized so highly. The memories of "The Golden Years" of dining in Marianna are filled with drive-ins, cafes, diners, and classy restaurants all of which provided a unique atmosphere which made diner’s feel as though they were well with-in the "upper crust" of Marianna’s society of years long since passed.
The four "patriarchs" of providing dining experiences for the citizens of our area over the past seventy years would be T. Hodges Hill, Otto Gilbert, Tony Primavera, and Jim Harkins. They truly fed the multitudes and gave years of wonderful memories to most of us.
When old-time residents speak of elegant dining in Marianna’s past, there is one fine restaurant that stands out in their memories. This establishment was the famed "Chipola Hotel Dining Room". The elegance of eating here was apparent, if not understated. This was the place for after church dining on Sundays. A dining room full of pressed, white table cloths and cloth napkins with sweet iced tea served in crystal stem ware glasses.
They offered "fantastic yeast rolls," according to Mr. Jim Harkins. The Chipola Hotel Dining Room had a long run, but closed in the late 1950s/early 1960s. During this era of large downtown hotels, The New Stone Hotel, put in a dining area of it’s own in order to compete with its opponent, the Chipola Hotel.
Any conversation regarding restaurants of the past in Marianna always migrate to what was perhaps the most famous one of them all…Otto’s Diner. This trolley car conversion was owned and operated by Otto Gilbert. His very popular eatery was said to have had the best hamburgers and hamburger steak in north Florida. The diner, located where the Wachovia Bank Drive-Thru is today, was an old railroad car that was no more than 300 square feet and seated only 16 people. Customers would buy hamburgers, cheeseburgers, French fries and other menu items and then go to the Ritz Theater to watch a playing movie.
Otto would pre-roll balls of hamburger meat in anticipation of the noon rush. When a burger was ordered he would grab a ball of meat, mash it out flat on the grill with a huge spatula, and if an onion was included in the order he would simultaneously grill the onion. The odor of grilled onions filled the diner and most of the downtown area. His French fries were famous, being peeled and cut before your eyes before he dropped them into the waiting hot grease.
Over the years, Mr. Gilbert employed many young people and would manage to arrange their work schedule where they’d be able to attend school. Otto was responsible for a lot of kids getting an education by helping them in virtually any way he could. For those who have fond memories of eating at Otto’s Diner, you are truly lucky. Of course, in today’s world it would not have been able to meet code requirements.
Another nice restaurant housed in a local hotel was the dining room belonging to the Holiday Inn, which today is the Ramada Inn. This restaurant overlooked the pool, a dreamy landscape for diners, and hosted several civic clubs, including the Rotary Club and Kiwanis, which met in its private dining room for years. At the other end of town was the Plantation House Restaurant and Malloy’s Motel which was operated by Margarette and Dallas Malloy. The J.C.’s met here each week for years.
There is a multitude of other memorable restaurants deserving mention which were part of the dining history in Marianna. One of these was Lafayette House, located where Mowrey Elevator Company sits today. The Lafayette House displayed a large sign proclaiming "restaurant" for the people of Marianna to see - much like another restaurant in the city today.
Also, State Representative Sam Mitchell opened a downtown barbeque restaurant on Lafayette St. called Big Sam’s Bar-B-Q. This restaurant facility later became Stacy’s, and today houses Old Mexico.
Yancy’s Supper Club was another memory, which later became Dewey Roe’s Supper Club located close to Yanceys Bridge at the corner of Caverns Road and River Forest Road. Later a restaurant facility was built on Lafayette St. for Bobs Bradford House-located where Video Warehouse operates now. The days of Bob’s Bradford House has long passed and the structure has since been the home to a number of other restaurants which included Smith’s Table, Poor Folks and a Chinese Restaurant. Today, however, the building is a part of the video rental chain, Video Warehouse.
Another restaurant facility in Marianna that has had many names and menu changes over the years has been what was originally the Marianna Country Club, located on Caverns Road. This facility later became the famous Red Canyon Grill and then The Grotto, both of which were first class restaurants. This facility is now sitting empty and waiting for another restaurateur.
Another famous spot was Kingry’s Café, which for years fed delicious seafood to hungry diners. It was located where the Fortune Cookie sits today, and was the place to go to get big, juicy fried shrimp when the urge hit you.
The Nic Nac Nook served the fine people of the community with quality service from their location in Carol Plaza, a role now filled by the expanded Cohee’s Café. Cohee’s is the second longest continually operating restaurant in Marianna, with their 50th anniversary coming soon. The Rhyne Café used to be where Milton Insurance is currently located and was operated in the 1940’s by "Charlie B" and his wife. The present location of Marianna’s UPS store was where the popular Splendid Café sat. That café sadly closed in the early 1950s. Padgetts Café, which was a full service restaurant, was also a place where diners would congregate for a good meal. Today, Madison’s Warehouse and the Gazebo, are the only cafés that function in the downtown part of Marianna that was once littered with numerous quaint downtown cafes busy serving the city’s citizens.
The Gazebo location also has a history of cool dining. It was once owned by Joe Pittman and called Joe’s Café then later it was called McClains, and then it became Henry’s before becoming the Gazebo.
On the corner of Deering and Daniels Street in the 1940s, before MHS had a cafeteria, was the Campus Inn. Owner’s Dorothy and Les Beard loved the young people and provided them with lunches and snacks. Jim Harkins usually had his mobile van parked nearby at lunch and was also busy selling hamburgers and hot dogs to the students.
Another notable restaurant was T’s Grill housed in the building which has since become Hinson Insurance Agency. T. Hodges, who owned this restaurant, closed the downtown location and moved to the east end of town to open the Caravan Restaurant, which later became Poci’s Caravan. However, this popular restaurant was finally closed and torn down to make way for the new CVS Pharmacy.
Perhaps memories of Marianna’s Drive-Inns are the fondest in some readers’ minds. This type of dining brings up thoughts of Stafford’s which some remember as Countryside which served burgers, shakes and fries out near where Hopkins Dealership is today. Stafford’s offered great hamburgers and a modern jukebox for people to enjoy while eating their hamburgers. Local teens would put their money in the jukebox and dance in the dirt parking lot. Soon afterward came Parkmores, which was slightly more sophisticated seeing as how it offered inside service and a paved curb for the "cool kids" to dance on. These two establishments were the places to "hang out" if you were a teenager in Marianna in the 40’s and 50s.
On the West End of Marianna was the "Big R" drive-in that had a big barrel of root beer on top of the building. It later became the first location for Kentucky Fried Chicken in town. It was located next to Western Auto where Pay Less Loans is currently located.
No dissertation about restaurants and drive-in’s would be complete without featuring the most famous restaurateur of them all…Jim Harkins. During his thirty six year career he created a lasting legacy by feeding thousands of Jackson County citizens a wide assortment of cuisines. He started in the 1950’s driving an ice cream truck, tinkling his bell in area neighborhoods to summon children to his treats. Jim had the concept of "Food and Fun" in combination long before McDonalds started their restaurant playgrounds. Among his many restaurants were the Dairy Keen (with playground), Doughnut Den, the original Nic-Nac-Nook, The Dog-n-Suds, The Pizza Nook (with putt-putt course), the Taco Tavern, and most famous of them all…Jim’s Steak House (today’s Jim’s Buffet and Grill).
The original Dog-n-Suds was operated by Tommy Simmons, who later sold to Jim Harkins.
Jim’s primary competition during this era was the Chipola Drive-In which was operated by the Basford family, which became the Waffle Iron of today.
Then in the 1970’s, a struggling Taiwanese couple, Jim and Julie You, came to town wanting to start a restaurant. Jim decided to help them get started. They first opened their restaurant, the House of You, in the tiny building they leased from Harkins, which had previously been the Doughnut Den. Then in a few years they moved into the larger building on Highway 90 West past the underpass, which had been the Dog-n-Suds and created the House of You at that location. Finally, after several years of successful operation the You’s purchased the Kingrey’s Café building, completely remodeled the facility into an outstanding, new House of You. They sold this restaurant several years later and it was renamed to the Fortune Cookie of today. They were a real example of how hard work can lead to success.
And on to seafood! Today’s site of Dip ‘n’ Donuts was for several decades the famous Green’s Oyster Bar, offering oysters at 30 cents per dozen…talk about a good deal. Commissioner Chuck Lockey and John Daffin competed for the record of most eaten oysters in one sitting. They both had over 30 dozen on the record score sheet. The owner even made up a new word, disfurnish, telling customers not to "disfurnish" themselves, meaning not to quit eating oysters before they were full.
Dick Lawrence also owned Dick Lawrence Seafood in town and sold shucked oysters to go. Richter’s seafood restaurant and seafood market operated for years on the right as you leave town on the Clarksville Highway. A famous feature of this restaurant was a system Richter developed to remove empty shells from the bar. He built a long metal chute that went through the building wall. All the shucker had to do was shove the shells through the wall into a waiting trash can. A restaurant located there today still sells seafood at the site, and is known today as Maye’s Seafood and Oyster Bar. The chute is still in use.
One restaurant that has been in business for many years and is still operating today is Tony’s. If you live in Marianna, you’ve probably eaten there, right? The restaurant was originally located where the Country Pantry is today and its current location was home to Townsends. This fine restaurant was originated in 1955 by Tony Primavera at a location near the existing Badcock’s store. Tony also had his restaurant at a site near Green’s Market on Highway 71 North. Finally he moved to the existing location in 1960 forty eight years ago. Tony’s is today owned and operated by Rick and George Riley.
Tony brought the first pizza to Marianna. His pizzas were probably the first "pizza experience" for many of our citizens. The original menu for the restaurant from 1960 is on display and features 60 cent pizza, 65 cent spaghetti, and 35 cent hamburgers. Tony’s is the longest running, still open restaurant in Marianna.
The first hamburger chain franchise to come to Marianna was Chandlers which operated in the late 1960’s/ early 1970’s at the site which is now Firestone Tires. Chandlers closed soon after Hardees built and opened across the street from them, where Farm Bureau is currently located. Today the locals of Marianna know franchises restaurants all too well. Lafayette St. is spilling over with them!
Perhaps this story is a bit too sentimental or biased, but to be able to have grown up with memories of the popular, locally owned diners of the 1950s would have been a dream for me.
Then there were the downtown drug stores with their famous soda fountains. If you wanted a real milk shake made in a metal mixing bowl, or a cherry vanilla coke, or a great ice cream sundae, you needed to stop at Hightower’s, Chipola Drugs, or Watson’s Drugs.
Though times and conditions change, as is inevitable, the change seems to take away some of the romance of small town charm. In a society where McDonald’s is considered a quality food experience, kids today unfortunately are missing out on the casual, cool environment some of the restaurants of the past routinely offered.
These olden style restaurants in their era, offered Marianna residents real quality foods and a genuine caring service for customers. I’m not saying that franchises don’t care for their customers as well, but it isn’t on a personal basis. They have locations all over the world and a customer base of enormous numbers. Quality and customer care are two things that the younger generations may not fully appreciate because they haven’t fully experienced it. The arrival of the age of franchised restaurants has created a bittersweet memory for our older generation.
Editor’s Note: Preparing this feature was quite an undertaking. If you have memories of other restaurants of the past that we may have missed, please write us and tell us about them. We would like to express our appreciation to Jim Harkins, Hubert Mitchell, Marthe Efurd, and Chuck Lockey for helping us stir up these memories. We hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane.


caverarch said...

That article was full of wonderful reminders for a Panama City native who began an important phase of his life in Jackson County. I've been a 'caver' since starting in the caves in and around the Caverns State Park as a High School Junior in 1967. I am still a caver, and am a Life Member of the National Speleological Society for many years. The best memories of Jackson County eating places I have surround the Nick Nack Nook, a place that was surprisingly tolerant of grubby college-age cavers. My friend and caving buddy Clark Whitehorn and I met Dr. Merlin Tuttle, the founder of Bat Conservation International, in the Nook in 1970, while he was doing graduate school dissertation research on the Gray Bat, which had a maternity cave nearby. We recognized each other as cavers by the National Speleological Society patches on our muddy Levi jackets. I returned to the restaurant while on a trip from Houston in the mid-1990s to introduce my twin daughters to some of my first caves.

Roger Moore
Houston, Texas

Bert Davis said...

Don't forget about the Lee's Motel and restaurant. We would mainly eat there after church on Sunday. They were across from the National Guard Amory.