Palms Grill Cafe, Atlanta, Illinois
More than five years ago, Ann and I traveled to St. Louis to attend my nephew Sam's graduation from Washington U. She was all of two years old then, so there's little chance she remembers any of it, even Atlanta, Illinois' own Hot Dog Man, pictured at this site yesterday. Now that we've been back, as a seven-year-old she might have some lasting notion of it. Likewise but even more so for her mother and sister. We all took a look at Hot Dog Man.
So did a Japanese family who happened to be there at the same time as we were on Friday afternoon. I didn't ask them, but I suspect they were following some kind of Route 66 itinerary. Hot Dog Man must be in all the Route 66 books now.
They weren't the only ones out following old U.S. 66 on Friday, just the only ones I saw in Atlanta. Historic 66 parallels the main Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis highway, I-55, as a two-lane road much of the way, so close that it's easy to see from I-55. Sometimes we passed a vintage car, or in one case a convoy of four or five vintage cars, heading southward on Historic 66. By vintage I mean 1940s or '50s models. Somehow no one feels enough Dust Bowl nostalgia to outfit an auto to look like Tom Joad's jalopy, but maybe someone has done that on the Oklahoma-to-California section of Historic 66.
Atlanta was on U.S. 66, but when the town was bypassed by I-55, one impact was the demise of a downtown restaurant called the Palms Grill Cafe, opened in 1934. It was not there when I passed through town in 2005. But it is now, revived from the commercial dead and reopened last year. According to various sources, the intention was to re-create it as closely as possible to its '30s appearance.
"When it first opened, the Grill (as the locals call it) was known for its home-cooked meals, BINGO, and weekly dances in the back room, which is now filled with additional tables," says Illinois Adventures, a web site that promotes central Illinois tourism ("the Land of Lincoln proves it has more to offer than cornfields and that windy city up north," it says).
"Schoolchildren frequented the restaurant for its 45-cent plate lunches and travelers stopped there while they waited to catch the bus. The restaurant doubled as a bus stop, and people waiting to hop on would flip the switch for the light at the bottom of the Grill’s large neon sign to let drivers know they were inside."
Just an aside: a 45-cent lunch in 1934 or even a few years later was a modest price, but not exceptionally cheap. The equivalent in buying power in 2010 would be $7.33, or roughly what a basic meal at the restaurant now costs, including drink and maybe tip.
Illinois Adventures continues: "The restaurant, which re-opened on April 28, 2009, looks much like the original — right down to the position of the small, square tables on the left and the L-shape bar with its spinning stools on the right. It’s a no-nonsense sort of place, with just a hint of nostalgia evident in the white-painted tin ceiling overhead, the old-fashioned cash register sitting next to a modern one, and the glass bottles of Coca-Cola served from a cooler behind the counter."
We had lunch there on Friday. How could we miss that, especially since it's across the street from Hot Dog Man? Other details of my own observation include a blue-and-white Public Telephone sign, a Felix the Cat clock and a Roberts Milk clock, art deco lamps hanging from the ceiling, two coffee makers, a soft-drink dispenser of a modern variety, a stainless-steel double-headed milk shake mixer, and a microwave oven, something the place surely would have had in 1934 if it could have. Each table, and the counter too, sported six-inch or so plastic palm trees. We put ours on the napkin dispenser. The restaurant wasn't crowded, since we'd arrived at about 2, but we still heard the clink of plates and silverware, the occasional crunch of ice and the clatter of kitchen utensils, since the kitchen wasn't fully hidden.
The short-order cook had some talent. Some of us ordered lunch items such as sandwiches, but others ordered breakfast. I was in the breakfast camp, having a nicely done ham-and-cheese omelette. It came with hash browns. This Atlanta, at least, is north of the invisible grits-hash brown line that spans the nation from the East Coast to some unmarked spot on the Great Plains. But it's probably not that far north of the line.