You’re not likely to find a handicap parking space outside the Highland Park Cafeteria, even before noon on a Monday when the lunch crowd has yet to arrive. But I’m lucky enough to park just one row away, and I hold open the heavy door for my mother as she negotiates her walker through the entrance in tandem with several other mature folks.
The line is short so we don’t have time to appreciate the portraits of the Presidents along the wall. I get what I always have, the Choice Plate offering a main course, two sides and a roll for $8.49. Today my choice is fried chicken (white meat), fried okra and squash casserole. We split a slice of pecan pie, and she gives me a taste of her tomato aspic which tastes like Bloody Mary mix with an extra dash of Worchestershire and features bright slices of avocado folded into the dark red jelly. I am in Southern food heaven.
I first ate at HPC half a century ago, when I persuaded my parents to allow me to attend stodgy Highland Park Methodist Church with my grandparents instead of up-and-coming Northaven in Dallas. My real motive was that Mamo and Granddad always hightailed it to HPC for lunch as soon as Granddad’s church usher duties were done. The lines would snake around the room, passing display cabinets filled with Mrs. Dewey Goodman’s gleaming china collection, and in 15 minutes we would reach the steam trays. I nearly always got Caesar salad, baked fish with extra tartar sauce, and some kind of rich icebox pie, probably chocolate. It was the place to see and be seen for the Highland Park crowd, and my grandparents would greet friends and neighbors as I sat more or less ignored and contentedly focused on my meal.
I grew up and went off to college, my grandparents passed away, but I would always include a trip to HPC on my visits home. An article in the New York Times in 1981 called it “America’s Cafeteria” (a riff on the Dallas Cowboys, then referred to locally as “America’s Team”) and noted it had moved next door to spiffier surroundings which disoriented long time customers (who missed the bust of Robert E. Lee which greeted them when they came in) but attracted a new crowd. At some point Mrs. Goodman decided, or perhaps was persuaded by a well-meaning but devil-driven pastor, that it was sacrilegious to be open on Sundays so the after-church socials became a thing of the past.
Then, HPC closed. It was a victim of changing times as Highland Park became increasingly trendy and the preferred home base of young movers and shakers during the financial and tech boom of the late 1990s. (Across the street from its original location is now an Apple store.) It was the end of an era… but the beginning of a new one.
Sometime in the late 1990s, I began to hear rumors on my return visits. Casa Linda Cafeteria had opened in East Dallas and hired back many of the original workers and was serving the same dishes. My mother, who always liked Luby’s just as well as HPC, scoffed at this. But a trip to the far side of White Rock Lake proved it was true. The portraits of the presidents were back on the walls and, though the Caesar salad was gone, many of our old favorites were back. The only things missing were the china collection and any reference to the Highland Park Cafeteria name.
By this time I was seriously interested in cooking and decided to try and find the recipe for the Caesar salad. What made it special was an eggy, cheesy cream dressing that generously coated the romaine leaves. A query to the local newspaper met a dead end: they responded as they always did that the HPC “does not share any of their recipes with us.” Then, on a visit, I spotted one of the cooks standing by the kitchen and talking with some colleagues in a way that indicated he had some authority. I wanted till he was alone then buttonholed him. I recognized that the recipes were secrets, I said, but if it wasn’t coming back maybe he could make an exception for the Caesar dressing. The cook gave me a thoughtful look asked me for my phone number. He would see what he could do.
That night he actually did call me, at my parents’ home. Here was the secret: the Caesar was made with a bottled dressing called Cheney’s. Alas, a web search then and now turns up no results other than odd juxtapositions of Caesar salad and Dick Cheney’s hunting accident. The trail, if indeed it ever existed, has grown cold.
In researching this article, I found there is not so much mystery to how Highland Park Cafeteria resurfaced several miles east as a new cafeteria with a new name: it was actually a branch of the original HPC. When the main business closed in 1998, a neighborhood management group changed the name to Casa Linda Cafeteria (maybe thinking they should give it a more local identity) and kept it open. But the venture was not profitable, quality slipped, and CLC closed its doors at the end of 2006. My mother and I discovered this news in the worst possible way, arriving for a lunch to the lights off and the doors locked.
The current chapter of HPC’s existence happens just a few months later. There were swirling rumors that Highland Park Cafeteria was about to reopen… could it be? And yes, it turned out an entrepreneur named Jeff Schnoyer had purchased the business and hired back as many of the old staff as he could find. The portraits of the Presidents are gone, donated to Highland Park High School as it turns out, so he commissioned a new set. We’re back.
Schnoyer has worked hard to make HPC a going concern. He greets patrons dressed as George Washington on President’s Day, and recently featured an Oktoberfest special of sausage, kraut and German potato salad with a glass of (gasp) beer. A number of East Dallas civic associations hold their meetings there. But he has been unsuccessful in attracting a significant flow of younger business, so the average patron is either someone old enough to remember HPC’s original incarnation, or a senior interested in a cheap and filling meal.
I feel like I am in a race against time with HPC’s ticking actuarial clock because I have yet to perfectly replicate their ethereal Sour Slaw. I didn’t get any on my most recent visit because I had a pint of it at my mother’s house, acquired a couple of days earlier, and I’d been making up comparison batches using delicately tuned balances of vinegar, water, brown sugar and salt. It’s impressive how much subtlety goes into an apparently simple dish.
Hang in there, Highland Park Cafeteria.