Story by Roger Moore, Images courtesy of the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar Photo Collection.
With the closing of Mojo’s Rock‘n’Bowl Grill last month, coupled with an evening decision to visit Del Rancho, this longtime Stillwater resident could not help but think about the cafes, restaurants, fast-food chains, and long-gone eating establishments that have graced Stillwater through the years. Much like the choices of hotels and motels we explored in January, the choices of places to get something to eat has certainly changed over the past century.
It is easy to imagine, more than a 125 years ago, the Boomers led by David Payne and eventually William Couch, stopping each evening to set up camp. Among the caravan of schooners was likely someone identified as the organizer of meals. There were no waiters and waitresses, just a community meal. Today the original townsite, established in 1889, has evolved into a community that is expected to hit the 50,000 mark in the next census.
Depending upon your generation, memories of eating out on a weekend evening vary. For anyone born in the late 1960s very few of those establishments remain. For those born in earlier decades, thoughts of Jim Smith Café on the corner of Main and 6th, among others, continue to fade. For this 50-year-old, all that remains are McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Sonic Drive-in, Coney Island, and Hideaway Pizza. There are others, but in different locations around town.
Stillwater’s landscape changed when McDonald’s opened on the corner of Main and McElroy. Not only this community, but many changed when a hot dog stand owned by two brothers in Illinois switched to hamburgers just after World War II. The restaurant “chain” was modeled after Henry Ford’s assembly line concept of producing things fast and cheap, not necessarily produced by those from the culinary arts. As the story goes, Ray Kroc bought out the brothers in 1954 and the rest is fast food history. The Golden Arches did not appear until 1968; they first appeared in Stillwater less than a decade later and have remained at its current location, with a few facelifts, since.
My earliest forays into “eating out” consisted of weekday afternoons walking home from Stillwater Junior High, stopping at Dairy Kitchen at the corner of 12th and Main for maybe a hamburger but usually a “Dip-cone.”
A few years earlier, in 1975, Eskimo Joe’s opened for business. It did not provide the menus it does today, just cold beer and a few aspiring musicians. As a 12-year-old in 1979, I did not spend too much time at the small structure on Elm Street. That would change, of course, and the Joe’s franchise expanded to Mexico Joe’s and Stillwater Oyster Bay Company. Mexico Joe’s opened for business behind what is now the Stillwater Northern Oklahoma College campus on the corner of Monroe and Hall of Fame. The Oyster Bay, a very underrated establishment for its food and vibe, opened in 1984 in what is now District Bicycles at the corner of 7th and Husband.
Instead, there was the occasional trip to Holland House, previously Skeen’s Cafeteria, on the corner of 9th and Main or to Wyatt’s Cafeteria in Cimarron Plaza. Then there are the legendary stories of large cow replicas floating … or sinking … in Theta Pond during Streaker’s Night. That replica sat outside the Sirloin Stockade on “The Strip” better known as Washington Street. Just a block to the north, Bill’s Italian Restaurant added to the choices, along with Coney Island where a cheese coney, or two, were consumed with a cold beverage and a quick game of pool.
And then there were the precursors to what would become the fast food frenzy that took off in the 1980s. Top-Hat Drive-In opened in Stillwater in 1958 and in 1959, it became the first re-branded restaurant to display the “Sonic Drive-In” name. Like McDonald’s, with a number of remodels, Sonic remains at its original location near Virginia and Main. Sonic was not the only choice for little leaguers during the 1970s. A&M Root Beer Drive-In sat at the corner of Lakeview and Boomer and provided frosty mugs and hamburgers.
As adolescence progressed, the eating choices increased, possibly due to trying to impress a prom date or two or maybe simply due to the palate advancing in its quest for quality places to eat out. Latigo Hickory House, on East Sixth just east of Stallard, had a certain feel to it. The steaks and ribs were good, but it had a late 1970s ambiance that made it one of Stillwater’s best. There is not enough time or space to talk about the legend of the Ancestor at 14th and Main. During Jimmy Johnson’s tenure as head football coach at Oklahoma State from 1979-84 the restaurant with the frozen salad plates was the “place to be” for many. It was prom date heaven, battling Redwood West on Highway 51 west of town and The Late Show east of town on Highway 51. Now, perhaps, the Rancher’s Club in the Student Union dwarfs all in the region.
Throw in Bobo’s Cantina (west of town), Mom’s Place (south of downtown on Main), and Taco Hut just down the road from Cooper’s Cycle Center and, again, more choices. Today, Granny’s Kitchen and Boomerang Diner on south Main are the congregation points for residents, some retired, some still working, to solve the world’s problems over cups of black coffee.
Downtown still offers a choice, or two, or three. Boomer, between McElroy and Stillwater High School, is considered fast food row. Perkins Road, from Sixth all the way to Lakeview, boasts a ton of choices for any appetite. These choices may not all be provided by those highly trained in the culinary arts, but they do, on a cold winter’s evening, work in a pinch.