Saturday, March 20, 2021

Dinner On A Dime


On Vacation
Because I'm in touch with members of my high school Class of '70, I learned recently that the dear old Alpine Restaurant on Lee Highway is about to be torn down to make way for a day care center. The second thing I learned was that it had been in operation since 1966, a year during which I was demonstrably alive, and had been for some time. But I couldn't remember the restaurant at all. My friends reminisced about the place, and someone provided a photograph--a fake chalet sort of façade--and I still couldn't recognize it, even though it had to be pretty close to my house. I checked the address.

Ah. The Alpine Restaurant was one and a half blocks from my house. If I stood in the front yard and looked south, I could see it. In its entirety.

Well, such is the nature of my Magic-Slate brain, in which most memory is peeled away for a fresh new sheet in case something interesting comes along. Clearly I have no recollection of the Alpine Restaurant because we never, ever ate there. One of my friends said his family didn't go often because they didn't have the budget for it, so that proves it. My father took the family out to dinner every Saturday night because he believed Mom should not have to cook seven days a week. And every single Saturday night for years we went to the Seven Corners shopping center and ate at the S&W Cafeteria in the basement. Where, I assume, you didn't have to tip.

Somewhere along the line Dad discovered a sit-down Family Restaurant in Cherrydale that fit his budget and we went there a few times. Here's what I remember. They had a cool toothpick dispenser at the cash register. And once, some adult came up to our table to compliment my sister and me for being so well-behaved. Was there another option???
 
There was another restaurant I do remember, but not because our family ate there. We did not. I think it was one of my friend's moms who took us to the brand-new McDonald's, one block west of the Alpine Restaurant (apparently) on Lee Highway, and treated us to a cheeseburger (18 cents), French fries (15 cents), and a chocolate milk shake. My world turned upside-down. How could food be so delicious? I couldn't imagine why we weren't eating there all the time. It had to be in the budget, because I was able to buy my own French fries with babysitting money, and I'm not sure I ever cleared more than four dollars a month.

It probably arrived around 1963 or so. A classic. Came with the two Golden Showers on top. Arches. Whatever. And a sign that said "over one million sold" that got upgraded every few months. At some point it hit "over a billion sold," and very shortly thereafter they settled for "billions and billions." Now there's just a poster in the parking lot that says "You know you're coming in here, just pull out your fucking wallet."

The restaurant thing with my father was fraught. I learned to tip heavily but certainly not from him. He was focused on paying down a mortgage and providing a college education for four children, goals which strike me now as laudable indeed, but didn't impress me one bit as a child. I wanted a bigger house with a rec room. I never got it. Got a stupid B.A. in Biology instead.

Vacation is fun!
We did go to restaurants when we were on vacation. One vacation my mom broke the heck out of her ankle in South Dakota and had to stay in a hospital while Dad drove my sister and me back home to Virginia. We went into a restaurant one night, the only one for miles, and as soon as we got seated we realized we'd made a huge mistake. The place was tinkly with inappropriate laughter from adults with genuine cocktails and the waiter brought enormous leather-bound menus over in which every entrée was at least one decimal point over budget. One of them was "Mermaid Steak," presumably a surf 'n' turf deal. I was terrified. Daddy said we could leave and he got up to tell the waiter we wouldn't be staying, but it took a bit to get his attention, and when I saw a straight path had opened up to the front door, I hollered "Run, Daddy!" and we all peeled out of there. I don't know what we did for dinner.

I would've remembered if it was McDonald's.

46 comments:

  1. What a wonderful recount of your restaurant experiences of childhood,run daddy,, that will stay with me all day! Thank you!

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  2. I loved this story. Do you know the American writer David Sedaris who lives here in Britain and tells similar stories about his family life to us? I was amazed at how food was so inexpensive in U.S. restaurants. Here you would be lucky to leave one without spending £80 per head if you have a bottle of wine. Also, does 'golden showers' mean the same thing to you as it does to some of us?

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    1. Dave Sedaris is wonderful! I've seen him many times at the Grand Opera House here in Delaware, and he almost feels like family to me. (Yeah... I had a dysfunctional family, too, so it figures.) I don't care for his fiction; I think that the stories he tells about his family and himself are a hoot, though. I eat them up. (I especially liked "The Drama Bug" where, as a boy, he spoke completely in Shakespearean language for a time.)

      Food is actually too inexpensive here, as it is priced so low because of mono farming and factory farms. If it weren't for factory farms, maybe people would treat meat as a condiment instead of the star attraction. And I am fortunate enough to have a farm market close by, where I can buy produce and eggs. If there were more of these around instead of supermarkets, we would all be a lot better off health-wise. Yes, the farm market is more expensive than a supermarket... but the food is fresh, local, organic, and so much better for one.

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    2. Gee, I don't think there's anyone who doesn't know David Sedaris, but if you think there's a comparison to be made with me, I'll let you go on thinking that! Thanks! And yes, about the Golden Showers.

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  3. So how did your mom get home?

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    1. She flew home. They had her in the hospital for like a week. For a broken ankle! Those were the days.

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  4. For us, it was the Sip N Sup (across the street from the VERY fancy Llewellyn Farms, where we never went). But the Sip N Sup had hot a turkey sandwich, gravy over deli turkey on white bread, with french fries!

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  5. There were no fancy restaurants in the town where I grew up and at some point, my parents joined a dining club thinking, I suppose, that we should learn how to dine properly. At one restaurant in the nearby big city of Syracuse, we were served shrimp cocktail. Oh my. What high living. But my seven or eight-year-old brother whispered to me: This place is too fancy for us.
    We were more used to the quonset hut in our town where I had, every Friday when we were still Catholics, fried haddock, french fries, and chocolate cream pie.

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    1. Just the word "cocktail" was enough to tell me we were in the wrong place. Even a shrimp cocktail.

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  6. I enjoyed this very much too, it took me back to my own family vacations. I grew up in a small rural town, where tv tortured us kids with commercials for Burger Chef, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Arby's. (Our town had none of these places, just 2 drive-in places for teens, Teen-Kup & Dari-Delite, and 2 sit down restaurants, the Waynesburg Restaurant & Chicken House. So on family vacations where we always drove to Virginia Beach or Florida, us kids pretty much held finger-guns to Mom's temple and demanded Dad take us to every fast food establishment we saw! I find it ironic that my old hometown now has all those franchises, has to be 20 of 'em--and my 17 year old niece refuses to eat at them! (She's very particular what she puts in her body, when I was her age I'd eat a 2 lb sack of peanut M&M's and consider that dinner!) Sorry for the long ramble Murr, hope you have a nice weekend. :)

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    1. I really don't remember any sort of fussing about whether our food was good for us or not. Lord knows Mom made cookies and I'd help myself all day long (except a half hour before dinner). The main concern with our food was whether it was cheap or not.

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    2. Cheap featured a lot in my childhood too.

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  7. Mary - this is great! It brought back many memories to me as well. Remember when we used to walk to school together?

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    1. Well--you being unknown and all--I do if you're Jane Ziegler!

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  8. Oops, my name was left off - Jane Ziegler Watson

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    1. Oh well there you go! I seem to recall you had a German Shepherd too, right?

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  9. My mother claimed that breakfast was her favorite meal 'out'. I think it was because we could usually get away cheap, or 'inexpensive' she would correct. To this day, breakfast is my favorite meal out. Perfect excuse for lingering over coffee.

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    1. Not me. I can't drink beer that early, so...

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    2. Pfft... time is an illusion. Stephen Hawking says so, so it MUST be true.

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  10. I don't recall going to any restaurant with my family (except on rare holidays) until I was well into my teens. Home and education ranked a LOT higher up my parent's priority list as well. Maccas was never an option (and still isn't for me).

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    1. This is my introduction to "Maccas," but the internet gladly supplied the meaning!

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  11. You evoke such vivid images, probably because I remember the Alpine and the first McDonalds and the dreary old S&W Cafeteria! As I recall, 99% of suburban restaurants didn't serve any alcohol back in those days. One had to go "Downtown" for that kind of fancy dining. Or perhaps the Alpine was one of the few places in Arlington VA where one could drink? We never went there either -- I suspect that the real reason was because it was Not In the Budget, but what we were told was that....once upon a time, when Dad Downs was early in his career at Washington Gas, he was sent to the restaurant to make nice about some kind of problem they had experienced with their gas service. The story goes that he got a good look at their kitchen, and whenever we would pester him to eat there, he would mutter "Trust me, you don't want to eat anything that comes out of that kitchen." I vowed that as an adult, I would someday eat there. But then the place mysteriously closed down and stayed shuttered for decades. It was a decent piece of real estate in a decent location, and no one ever found out why it just sat there for 20+ years...

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    1. What was right next to it in the brick building? The Federal store? I know there was a store called Federal (hardware? Grocery?) because I named my first stuffed dinosaur Federal after it. I'll bet my dad got a kick out of that.

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  12. Ah, the S&W Cafeteria! Sliding your tray along the metal guide...and so many choices!

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    1. It seemed like a wonderland to me. I still like cafeterias! Theoretically. I don't think I've been in one for decades.

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    2. I used to like them, until I went to a Chinese restaurant in Redding that was not even up to 1960s-school-cafeteria standards. I think it's gone now, but who knows.

      I still remember that when I was a kiddo I got tremendous kick out of the Horn & Hardart's automat — a restaurant that was sort of a huge vending machine covering an entire wall, each item replaced by the staff on the other side after you bought it.

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    3. The only place I know now that has that cafeteria style is Ikea.

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    4. Horn & Hardart--I think I saw that in New York City. Was it anywhere else?

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    5. We had a Horn & Hardart here in Wilmington, Delaware back in my childhood, but it wasn't an automat; just a regular restaurant.

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  13. Great recounting of life in America in the 1960s. That McDonald's was the first one I every ate at and I can remember being similarly impressed with how cheap it was. My father must have been doing well in those days as we frequented the Alpine more than a few times. I remember the meatballs, spaghetti and marinara sauce with great fondness.
    Thanks for evoking such fond memories.

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    1. I don't think it took that much to be a fancy restaurant back then.

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  14. My mother loved the Alpine! We went there a lot especially on special occasions. I had my wedding rehearsal dinner there!

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    1. Wow! I hope you said hello to Buchanan Street for me. All I ever went to was Robertson's Five and Dime.

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  15. BA in Biology? What kind of jobs does that get you and did you do any of those jobs? I only know about your mail carrying days.

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    1. I worked as a lab technician at the Harvard School of Public Health for two years, for slave wages, before moving to Portland, and then I sold scrimshaw at the Saturday (Craft) Market for two years, and then signed on with the post office. That's pretty much my entire work history right there.

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  16. Murr,
    We lived in the same neighborhood only 50 +/- years apart. And I didn’t eat at the Alpine ever/either! And I got one of them Bio degrees. We have some catching up to do! Did you get your vaccine yet?

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    1. Yes sir yes sir, two arms full! Very happy about that. I should be in the clear on April Fool's Day.

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  17. Fool’s errand—see you then.

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  18. Great article! My family also frequented the S&W cafeteria and The Three Chefs also on Lee Highway when it was in the budget! There were six of us, so I get what you mean.

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    1. The Three Chefs? That one I don't remember. Then again I don't remember the name of the Family Restaurant in Cherrydale either. Cool toothpick dispenser though.

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  19. Hey Mary, loved this walk down memory lane! When I went to Yorktown, our family lived on Military Rd, and my Granddad on Lee Highway. And he'd take us to the Alpine on special occasions, wasn't it on Lee Highway, too?

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    1. It was. About fifty feet away from Robertson's dime store.

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  20. It appears that I grew up in Arlington in the same time as you. I remember when that McDonalds opened. Ate there the first time with my best friends family. And the S&W cafeteria! Totally forgot about that. I worked one summer as a waitress at the Hot Shoppes at Baileys Corners. I hardly recognize anything when I get back there fora visit.

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