By Joe Stumpe
It’s no secret that dining out is one of Wichita’s favorite forms of entertainment. A new book by the Wichita Eagle’s Denise Neil shows that the city has been restaurant crazy for a long time, maybe since its earliest days.
“Classic Restaurants of Wichita” is set to be released by The History Press on Aug. 9. The 152-page book contains 100 profiles of restaurants and nearly as many photographs. Most are no longer in business, but that doesn’t mean they’re forgotten, Neil said.
“For whatever reason, restaurants are something people feel nostalgic for more than any other type of business,” she said. “That’s the only kind of business that people really wax on about.”
Neil, a Dodge City native, has written on many topics since coming to the Eagle in December 1997, but she is especially known for her reporting on the restaurant scene. That background gave her a head start on deciding which restaurants to highlight in the book, which was about a year in the making.
“I’ve done a lot of stories about restaurants that people can’t forget or wish were still around,” she said. “Every time, the same names would come up over and over again — Fife and Drum, Portobello Road. People would always mention the Lazy R, Chateaubriand and Albert’s.”
Organized by decades, Neil’s book starts soon after the city’s founding in 1870, when a jovial 375-pound German immigrant named Fritz Snitzler opened a popular restaurant and saloon.
Of course, she profiles the Innes Tea Room, which opened in 1916 and is still fondly remembered by many Wichitans. Neil pulled information from old newspaper articles but also tracked down family members of the owners of many long-closed establishments.
She talked to a grandson of the man who opened Wolf’s Cafeteria, a popular eatery located at Douglas and Main that got its start in 1898 and survived into the 1950s. She spoke to a son of Wayne Wong, whose family started the Pan-American Café in the 1910s and who went on to open the Georgie Porgie Pancake Shoppe in the 1970s. She found the nephew of the man who owned Casey Jones Junction, a restaurant located where Harry’s Uptown now operates that delivered food to diners via miniature trains.
“They loved that their relatives’ stories were being recorded before it was all forgotten,” Neil said. “Everyone I contacted was pretty happy to share.”
Neil’s book ends with Gary Streepy’s Pasta Mill in the late 1980s, and it sounds like she enjoyed digging into the city’s more recent dining history even more. She profiles the steakhouses and private clubs that proliferated after World War II thanks to the state’s arcane liquor laws; barbecue joints such as R&S and Auntie Sweet’s; Judge Riggs, a hotel restaurant with singing waitresses that was the hottest ticket in town for a time; El Charro, which featured a rotating stage for its organist; and The Looking Glass and Hatch Cover, popular spots from the 70s and 80s.
Naturally, there’s a section on Antoine Toubia, whose Olive Tree and Café Chantilly restaurants exerted a big influence on local cuisine.
“Antoine was really credited with introducing Wichitans to sauces and different preparations, a more upscale Continental fare.”
There also are write-ups on the city’s oldest surviving restaurants.
“I didn’t feel like you could write this book and leave out Nu-Way and Angelo’s and Scotch and Sirloin,” Neil said. “Those are major parts of our history.”
Neil says she learned of connections she didn’t know existed — for instance, that Patrick Shibley of Doo-Dah Diner fame is the son of Kamiel Shibley, who owned popular restaurants of his own.
Now, Neil said, she can’t drive around Wichita without thinking of all the restaurants that once operated here.
“It almost gets me kind of emotional,” she said. “There’s no way to travel back in time, but if I could, I would. I would go to all these places and have dinner.”
The book is available at local bookstores and retailers and also can be ordered directly from Neil by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.