Americana: Cafeterias

You just can't get pinto beans with onions and a great piece of chocolate pie just anywhere. Uploaded by roadfood.com.

My first experience with a cafeteria came as a kid, when my family went to the cafeteria at the Natural Bridge Hotel. I can still hear my father’s admonitions: “Don’t let your eyes get bigger than your appetite,” and “Take what you want, but eat what you take.”

Go to any cafeteria and you’ll find two kinds of good Americans – working people and blue hairs. Get there before 6 p.m., and you may be the only person under 60 in the place. Working people like to eat at cafeterias because they’re easy on the budget. The elderly like that as well, but they also like being able to order vegetables. That’s not usually a choice at Chili’s.

Uploaded to Flickr by Rgdriver89.

We’re talking here about cafeteria restaurants, of course. Schools and hospitals have cafeterias, of course, as do some businesses. But we’re celebrating K&W, Picadilly, Morrison’s, Luby’s and their ilk. Childs Restaurant in New York is credited with being the first to offer trays and a tray line about 1898. It wasn’t long before the country was dotted with this exciting new way for Americans to dine who were mobile and busy.

Cafeterias survived the arrival and dominance of the fast food industry in the 50s and 60s, and still survive despite a growing trend toward buffet restaurants. But you just can’t get some good pinto beans with onions or chocolate cream pie just anywhere, and that keeps folks coming back to the old reliable, Great American cafeterias.

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