If you ever wanted to time travel back to the 1950s, all you needed to do was to walk through the heavy glass doors of Highland Park Cafeteria, in Casa Linda Plaza.
Forever an institution, the Highland Park Cafeteria is permanently closing. (It had actually been temporarily closed since March 16. As the Dallas Morning News reported in late March, they’d used all their ingredients in storage to prepare and hand out nearly 1,000 meals instead of transitioning to a to-go restaurant.) The cafeteria was beloved by an elderly clientele. And also my brother, who’s almost 16. I think this had to do with the fact that mac and cheese counted as a vegetable, and that he could get two servings of mac and cheese as his two vegetables. I don’t think he knows the cafeteria is closed. May this eulogy gently, sweetly break the news to him.
I last went to Highland Park Cafeteria in March, before we had to dress like bandits to enter a premises, and certainly before it was against the governor’s order to enter one. The first thing I noticed was the panoptic row of captioned presidential portraits lining the walk from doorway to food counter. This was, after all, “America’s Cafeteria,” according to the New York Times. Purportedly, one caption contained a typo, and supposedly, if you found the typo, you’d earn a complimentary dessert. I didn’t even look. I wish I would’ve. How was I to know it was my last chance?
There was a quiescence to the space, a total hush, radiated by its septuagenarian clientele enjoying the cafeteria’s anachronistic interior of polyester ivy, green leather booths, and mud-colored carpet. And then there was the food. Oh, the food! Waldorf salad, ambrosia salad, tossed salad. Fresh fruit, collard greens, sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Salmon patties, beef stroganoff, chicken teriyaki. Millionaire pie, chocolate icebox pie, meringue pie. Jell-O for vegetable and Jell-O for dessert. You know this kind of food. The kind of food that gives you food for thought: How did anybody survive the 50s without contracting heart disease?
The cafeteria kept the name Highland Park Cafeteria even after moving to Casa Linda Plaza. Sarah Bennett, formerly of Weddings and Home, wrote for People Newspapers that Highland Park Cafeteria first opened on Knox Street, in Highland Park, in 1925. Eventually expanding to eight locations, only the original and Casa Linda remained after the oil bust and the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. Then the ownership changed hands and the original location closed. Then the ownership changed hands again, and the name changed to Casa Linda Cafeteria. Then the ownership changed hands again, to Jeff Snoyer’s; he changed the name back to Highland Park Cafeteria and the establishment had flourished ever since. Then the coronavirus came.
Anyway, on the March evening in question, we went with Choice Plates, which included an entrée and two fruits or vegetables. My brother got beef stroganoff with—you guessed it—mac and cheese as a vegetable and—you guessed it again—mac and cheese as another vegetable. He dug that place. I chose chicken teriyaki with steamed broccoli and green peas. My stepdad also chose chicken teriyaki, but with steamed broccoli and mashed potatoes; a balanced plate by cafeteria standards, although Michelle Obama might’ve had something to say. But that’s beside the point. As far as this place was concerned, the president might as well have been Eisenhower.
We crossed the mud-colored, floriated carpet to our very own green leather booth, where we dug into our heaping plates. The teriyaki was a little too sweet, but the broccoli and the peas and the mashed potatoes were good. A server came over.
“All good, guys?” He offered us ketchup and hot sauce, which was very nice. He also offered to refill my water.
“Um, no thanks,” I said, wanting to look around and figuring that refilling my water was a good excuse. Not, however, before taking a bit of the chocolate icebox pie, which had a nice flavor but an odd texture, like, the consistency of whipped cream from the crust to the whipped cream.
And yet—writing about the quality of the food is also beside the point. People didn’t really go for the quality of the food, which was good but rarely great. Rather, they went for the type of food. For the ambience. Highland Park Cafeteria was a place of comfort, security, reminiscence. A place of food that reminded many of childhood. A place to be a kid again, to go back in time; it transported my mom to her family’s post-church service lunches at East Dallas cafeterias back in the 70s and 80s. Leave your connection in the comments below.
I didn’t end up looking around much. How was I to know it was my last chance? Starting last week, the cafeteria is auctioning off all its contents—nonperishable food supplies, equipment, furniture, and memorabilia. But I leave you with this: Highland Park Cafeteria closed in 2006, before Snoyer purchased and revitalized it in 2007. Maybe—this is speculation, I know; it’s unlikely, I know—but maybe a resurrection is in the future. Which isn’t exactly time travel but is also pretty cool.