Texas tops a new list from Food & Wine covering the humble realm of cafeterias. Just in time for the holidays, the magazine issued a "10 Best Cafeterias in America" list that highlights three Texas institutions, with a Houston restaurant coming in at No. 1, and a Dallas cafeteria making the list of honorable mentions.
Houston's famed Cleburne Cafeteria earns the top slot on the list, touted for its fighting spirit, egalitarian milieu, and great turkey. Two other Texas classics are included in a "best of the rest" list of 14 cafeterias that were good, but not good enough to make the top 10:
- Highland Park Cafeteria in East Dallas
- the Luby's chain
Written by David Landsel, the article traces the cafeteria's origin to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where entrepreneur John Kruger operated a restaurant inspired by the smörgåsbords of Sweden.
Landsel calls the cafeteria concept "hopelessly dated," while acknowledging that cafeterias are not only surviving but thriving in places like North Carolina, Texas, and "even future-minded Northern California." North Carolina and Texas, apparently stuck in the dismal past.
Houston's very own Cleburne Cafeteria, which Landsel notes has overcome incredible odds including a major move and two devastating fires, seems to have provided the inspiration for the listicle. Landsel ate there for Thanksgiving in 2018, and was awestruck by the meal he shared with thousands of people he'd never even met. And yet they ate together!
"We came as strangers, united in our appreciation of one of the city's great dining institutions, the Cleburne Cafeteria, a family-owned establishment that has been feeding Houstonians from all walks of life for generations," he says. "Some of us were here for the nostalgia, too, because they just don't make cafeterias like this anymore, others because it was easier than cooking our own turkeys. And really, why compete—the turkey here is just that good."
"Today, the city's oldest cafeteria is better than ever," he says, "serving up quality home cooking at reasonable prices to anybody and everybody wise enough to understand just how lucky we are that this place still exists."
Other places on the list stretch from Alabama to Sacramento, California, and include restaurants such as Valois in Chicago, Sokolowski's University Inn in Cleveland, Arnold's Country Kitchen in Nashville, and famous Philippe's in Los Angeles (although that place is really better known as home to the original French dip sandwich rather than being a cafeteria).
His blurb about Highland Park Cafeteria, whose Casa Linda Plaza location is the final survivor in what used to be a chain, applauds its longevity.
"After nearly a century of serving chicken—chicken fried steak, chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, you name it—to Dallasites with big appetites, what was once referred to as 'America's Cafeteria' has downsized greatly, to just the one location, but the legend (thankfully) lives on," he says.
As for Luby's, he notes its ubiquity: "Driving around the Lone Star State, you can’t help but feel as if reports of the cafeteria’s death have been greatly exaggerated—Luby’s seems to be everywhere, mostly because it is—dozens of these cavernous mess halls continue to dot the landscape."
"One of the house specialties—the square fish, translated as neatly-portioned filets of fried, wild-caught cod—is popular enough that it’s now sold (along with the other house classic, macaroni and cheese) at H-E-B, the state’s best-loved grocery store," he says.
In addition to Luby's, he includes three other chains: Piccadilly, K&W Cafeterias in the Carolinas, and the Midwest treasure MCL Restaurant & Bakery. If Landsel thinks those places are good, just wait until he checks out the spread at a Mediterranean cafeteria like Fadi's. Mind blown.