On The Road:
Author & cultural historian
TASTE OF POP CULTURE HISTORY
By Chris Epting
It's no big secret. Going out to eat can be made more of an adventure when you opt for interesting, offbeat places. Nothing against the big chains, but isn't it more fun to tell people you ate a corn dog at the place where the corn dog was invented, as opposed to a Wienershnitzel? But location plays a big part in just how easy it is to visit such gastronomically hallowed places. Thankfully, the country is dotted with many such spots, making it more convenient than you might imagine.
Few regions can challenge Southern California in terms of number of places to experience kitschy, historic eats. That's due in large part to how fast the car culture exploded here in the '40s and '50s. Innovative, crazy food concepts were hatched almost daily to try and sway hungry motorists. Today, Southern California is still blessed with an abundance of interesting, culturally significant (or just plain weird) places to indulge, as my family and I experienced recently.
We headed up to L.A. so I could shoot some photos for a book I'm writing. Deciding that it might be fun to hit the pop culture food trifecta, we planned on experiencing three fun/unusual places for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In the morning, we started at world famous Randy's Donuts in Inglewood. Come on, you know it! The big donut! Built in 1952 as part of the Big Donut Drive-In chain, Randy's Donuts has become one of America's most classic pop culture structures. Aside from being a place that serves incredibly good donuts, Randy's has been featured in many movies, including Earth Girls Are Easy, Mars Attacks!, Golden Child, Into the Night, Coming to America, Breathless, and many more.
Soon, it was time for lunch. Where else but Tail O' The Pup? The famous, giant hot dog on San Vincente Boulevard. The iconic restaurant designed by architect Milton J. Black in 1938 and built in 1945, the Tail O' the Pup was actually declared a cultural landmark in 1987. (This saved it from demolition by a hotel developer, and it was relocated to its present address in 1987.) Located just north of the Beverly Center, it's been seen in many films including the 1984 Brian De Palma thriller, Body Double, and Steve Martin's 1991 comedy L.A. Story.
Several hours later, it was time for dinner. So we headed to downtown L.A. to the historic Philippe The Original, home of the French dip sandwich. Philippe's is one of the oldest and best-known restaurants in Southern California, if not the world. It was established in 1908 by Philippe Mathieu, the man thought to have created the "French Dipped Sandwich." Here's the story: One day in 1918, while making a sandwich, Mathieu inadvertently dropped the sliced French roll into the roasting pan filled with juice still hot from the oven. The patron, a policeman, said he would take the sandwich anyway and returned the next day with some friends asking for more dipped sandwiches. And so it was born--the "French Dipped Sandwich," so called either because of Mathieu's French heritage, the French roll the sandwich is made on or because the officer's name was French. Either way, people love this place for all the right reasons-great food, great prices and great history.
Of course, Southern California doesn't have a monopoly on historic eateries. Here's my Top 10 of places outside Southern California that I believe are worth the effort:
It is believed by many that Cheeseburgers were first served here in 1934. Every October 12th (the date the cheeseburger was invented) Kaelin's "Cheeseburger" day is celebrated here in Louisville.
The very first restaurant opened by Dave Thomas, today it's as much a museum as a restaurant.
The one and only birthplace of the corn dog, first created in the early 1940's.
New Haven, Connecticut
Where the hamburger was invented in 1900. Today, each one is still made from beef ground fresh each day, broiled vertically in the original cast iron grill and served between two slices of toast with cheese, tomato and onion. (And no ketchup!)
Harland Sanders Cafe & Museum
This was where the Colonel developed his secret recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken in the 1940s. Today, you can dine in the restored restaurant, tour the Colonel's kitchen, and see artifacts and memorabilia.
Big Texan Restaurant
Another great Route 66 icon, the Big Texan serves up a 72 ounce steak that's free if you can eat it in an hour.
Ann's Chicken Fry House and Gift Shop
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
World famous for chicken-fried steak and fried peaches -- what else do you need to know?
Ted Drewes Frozen Custard
St. Louis, Missouri
Called the "finest custard in St. Louis," the famous Ted Drewes store has been operating nonstop since 1929.
Buffalo, New York
Buffalo wings were born here in 1964 when Dominic Bellissimo's mom whipped up a batch for himself and his hungry pals.
Union Oyster House
Officially America's oldest restaurant, here you can sit in President John F. Kennedy's 's favorite booth (#18). Trivia note: The toothpick was first used in the United States here at the Union Oyster House. A man named Charles Forster of Maine first imported the picks from South America. To help spread the word about his new business, he hired Harvard students to dine at the Union Oyster House and ask for toothpicks until they caught on.
So eat well, drive safe and get off those freeways once in awhile! The rewards can be fulfilling, in more ways than one.
December 12, 2004