Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Remembering King’s Food Host, Columbia, Missouri

My purpose in this post is not to give the official history of this chain of family diners that operated in at least 17 states and in Canada in the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s. Let’s get the background info over with quickly. Indeed, if you want to learn more than I’ve already just said, I recommend the following:

—Randy Hoffman, “What Ever Happened to King’s Food Host?” at bismarckcafe.com, Dec. 14, 2009.

—Jan Whitaker, “Frenchies, Oui, Oui,” at Restaurant-ing through History, May 4, 2011.

There’s also a commemorative Facebook page, with loads of photos of King’s restaurants and King’s-belia: Kings Food Host—Home of the Cheese Frenchee.

From those websites, I gather that King’s focused on putting franchises in college towns (so our King’s in Columbia, Missouri, fit that pattern . . . though its location on Business Loop 70 made it a little far from campus, in the days when few students owned cars or lived off-campus).

I also read that cigarette machines (so ubiquitous in those days) were not allowed in King’s restaurants, because the owner didn’t want them there. Apparently he wanted to have a less smoky atmosphere in his family restaurant. (He was truly ahead of his time!)

Perhaps, with the college-town focus, he was thinking not so much of college students, but of smart young faculty members, like my father, juggling teaching, grading, research, and working toward tenure, and their families, who liked to go out to dinner occasionally, and who all would have preferred a nonsmoking restaurant.

Dining out was much less common then.

I was born in 1965, so nationwide, King’s was pretty much gone by the time I was ten. I vaguely remember when they closed in Columbia, driving past with my parents, staring out the window at the empty building, wondering what would become of it. Later, I saw it converted into a variety of other businesses. (Businesses I’ve never stepped foot in.)

The one in Columbia was ultimately torn down, but the concrete foundation is still there. A local bus/shuttle service has taken over the land and they park their big tour buses on the concrete pad where the restaurant once stood.

The metal roof for the drive-in portion remains. The shuttle company parks its vans and minibuses under it.

Anyway . . . see these links for photos of King’s restaurants during their heyday: one in Manhattan, Kansas, the other from Ames, Iowa. They’re both pretty close to what our Columbia King’s looked like—the textured horizontal roof treatment, the big yellow crown-shaped sign, the huge wall of windows across the front end of the building.

Personal Memories

My personal memories of King’s are rather fuzzy, but in many ways, they are especially nostalgic.

There was apparently a telephone at each booth for placing orders, which I don’t remember because my parents wouldn’t have let me do the ordering, and annoy a busy food-service worker with my soft, uncertain, hesitating delivery.

There was a similar ordering system in the drive-in parking behind the restaurant. The drive-in was a long, metal-roofed structure extending straight back from the restaurant, with parking spaces on either side. (Gosh! Remember how cars in the ’50s and ’60s had circular depressions on the inner surface of the glove compartment door, which always opened flat into a miniature table surface? The circles were designed as a place to set your Pepsi or milkshake while you ate in your car at the drive-in!)

We went to the King’s drive-in occasionally—I recall going there for lunch with Paul and my Mom.

But we went to King’s more often, I think, as the whole family, in the evenings, and we sat in the dining area. Interestingly, when I asked my parents recently about what they recalled of King’s on the Business Loop, they both drew a blank. I guess it made a far bigger impression on me!

Remember the crown logo and the gold, brown, and orange diamond motif? I recall the seats being orange—but that might be a false memory (specifically, mental pollution from listening to the snarky 1987 Uncle Bonsai song “Family Restaurant,” which recalls “rolling hills of orange Naugahyde”).

I remember walking in the door, which was on the east side of the building. The restaurant was fairly brightly lit with florescent ceiling fixtures. To me as a little kid, the place seemed huge, and kind of magical.

Yes: that big, open dining area, with large plate-glass windows facing Business Loop 70. At that time, the Business Loop was full of family-friendly food places, such as Columbia’s Zesto, a Dog ’n’ Suds, and the city’s first McDonald’s. . . . Was all the seating at King’s at booths? I think it must have been, since the telephone was key for ordering. But maybe they had a row of stools along a counter, however.

Here’s a picture of the inside of a King’s in Lincoln, Nebraska.

I remember it being a fairly quiet restaurant, though since I was a child that memory could also be skewed. Let’s put it this way: I’m sure it was a great place for parents to bring young kids who were still learning to behave like little ladies and gentlemen when dining in public.

I’m sure I must have requested other foods at times—chili dogs, for example, and little chocolate sundaes, and, when I was really little, I must have had the “Kiddie Platter”—but what sticks in my mind, as my very favorite, is the “Cheeseburger Platter.”

I still can’t say “Cheeseburger Platter” without feeling a huge, silly grin blooming inside me. On the King’s memorial Facebook page, someone posted a menu revealing that the Cheeseburger Platter came “with cole slaw, golden French fries, and onion rings.” . . . Yep, yep! That’s what I remember. That menu, from who knows when (the early ’70s, I’ll bet), gives the cost of the Cheeseburger Platter as $1.10. Oh, and I remember having an orange drink with it. (Ha! An “orange drink”! Remember that stuff? And those gigantic clear, cubical drink dispensers every restaurant used to have, with the lemonade or “orange drink” sloshing around inside? So tempting! And hey, I was, like, seven.)

I also recall the food being served on actual cafeteria-style china dishware.

The button I photographed at the top of this post was undoubtedly given to me (and Paul must’ve gotten one, too) by a server, to reward me for “cleaning my plate,” which was something all kids were strongly encouraged to do back then. (As with about every other paragraph in this post, please join me in a resounding: “Boy, times have sure changed!”)

Regarding the Famous “Cheese Frenchee” Sandwich

Many people fondly remember King’s “Cheese Frenchee” sandwiches, but I don’t recall them. Because I was pretty young, I suspect my parents, thinking of my health, had guided me away from them. The Cheese Frenchee, a King’s signature dish, was a midcentury, midwestern, family-restaurant version of the famous French croque-monsieur. There are lots of recipes approximating this popular King’s menu item; here are some:

—At Studio1430.com, there is a cheese frenchee recipe purportedly from a former employee at King’s.

—Pam Patterson, “Recipe: Cheese Frenchees,” at latimes.com.

—R_Mess, “Cheese Frenchee” at food.com.

Interestingly, there are still some King’s restaurants that remain as restaurants, operating under different names, but in many ways similar, including, with some, the tableside telephones for ordering; one is The Wood House Restaurant, in Bismarck, North Dakota; another is the Pantry Family Restaurant, in Boise, Idaho.

. . . Hmm. Suddenly, I’m thinkin’: ROAD TRIP!

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