I know a man who refuses to set foot in a chain restaurant, on the grounds they’re all alike and the food was probably prepared three days ago. Sometimes that seems true, especially if you get a chicken-fried steak that is still frozen in the center or bland mashed potatoes that may possibly have been rehydrated. But there are chain restaurants I truly enjoy—Pappadeaux is one, Uncle Julio’s Mexican Foods another. There’s a certain reliability to the food, and I really don’t think it is all prepared days ahead. I remember once, traveling, when we were overjoyed to come to an Outback Steak House, because we knew exactly what to expect. I have a son who loves Cracker Barrel restaurants for the chicken and dumplings. I don’t stop at most fast-food chains, although I used to claim McDonald’s had the best iced tea. Now they’ve switched from brewed to tea that comes out of a spigot just like soft drinks and it’s not nearly as good.
On the other hand Mom-and-Pop cafés can be iffy. (Maybe we should call them stand-alone restaurants instead of Mom-and-Pop—the connotation is better.) There used to be a place near my home called Summerhill’s (an unlikely name). It had eight or ten seats at a counter and that was it, but they served marvelous plate lunches—short ribs, stew, roast chicken. There was a place called Leta’s down an alley in North Fort Worth that served the best hamburgers ever, but you’d never find it if you didn’t know where to look. And Leta was famed for taking no guff from anyone. A visit there was an adventure.
For a few years I helped out on Saturday nights at The Star Café, also on Fort Worth’s North Side. It’s a steak house but it also has excellent hamburgers and chicken fried steak. I ran the cash registers and got to see restaurant life from the inside, happy customers and complaining. My favorite time was when the restaurant went dark after closing, and we could sit with a glass of wine and whatever we ordered for dinner. Owned by good friends of mine, this is almost a true mom-and-pop restaurant, though Don Boles might deny the appellation.
I also enjoy Guy Fieri’s segments on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dumps that feature unexpected small restaurants. But choosing a stand-alone restaurant without knowing anything about it or having Fieri’s recommendation can be chancy. There’s an old saying in Texas that advises choosing one with the most pick-ups out front. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. On the long stretch of road from Wichita Falls to Amarillo, we’ve tried that and not found one really good place, a few really bad ones. To anyone who owns a really good place along 287 that I’ve missed, my apologies.
One of my favorite stand-alones is a place called The Shed in Edom, Texas. For many years, my children and I ate there on our occasional visits to a B&B ranch owned by friends outside nearby Ben Wheeler, and I think The Shed is emblazoned on my memory by not just food—fried chicken, fried catfish, chicken-fried steak, and marvelous breakfasts—but by the good times we had there, filled with love and laughter.
When I decided I wanted to write a culinary mystery yet didn’t feel qualified to jump into the sophisticated chef’s world of Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schultz series, my thoughts went to The Shed. The result was a mystery set in a small-town café, in a place not in the Deep East Texas of Caddo Lake and the Piney Woods but the farm and ranch land about an hour east of Dallas. I gave the town and the café fictional names but most in the area will recognize it.
Setting a novel in a small town was a big jump for me. I’d been writing mysteries set in an inner-city historic district in my city of Fort Worth. I knew the neighborhood well and could easily put characters on familiar streets, in familiar restaurants. Local readers loved it for that reason if nothing else. But a small town…I’m a city girl, raised in Chicago and living in Fort Worth for the last forty-plus years. I spent my first two years of college at a small private school in a really small Iowa town—and hated it. Then, later, I lived for three years in a small town in Missouri, but it was a university town and I was in graduate school. I lived in the academic community, separated somewhat from the town itself. So I don’t really know small-town life. And though I’d been to Edom, it’s now been at least ten years, so I wrote from memory and a limited amount of information available on the web. And, of course, as all fiction writers do, I used my imagination. I hope the results ring true to small-town life and a small café.
My new mystery, Murder at The Blue Plate Café, is the first in what I hope will be the Blue Plate Mystery Series. In it, twin sisters Kate and Donna inherit their grandmother’s restaurant, the Blue Plate Cafe, in Wheeler, Texas. There’s immediate conflict. Donna wants to sell and use her money to establish a B&B; Kate wants to keep the cafe. Thirty-two-year-old Kate leaves a Dallas career as a paralegal and a married lover to move back to Wheeler and run the café, while Donna plans her B&B and complicates her life by having an affair with her sole investor. But when the mayor of Wheeler becomes seriously ill after eating food from the café, delivered by Donna’s husband, Kate is suspicious. When Donna’s investor is shot, she is arrested. Kate must defend her sister and solve the murder to keep her business open, and she uncovers more than she ever expected. Gram guides Kate through it all, though Kate’s never quite sure she’s hearing Gram—and sometimes Gram’s guidance is really off the wall.
An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of three books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, and Trouble in a Big Box. Danger Comes Home will be published in July 2013. Follow Judy at http://www.judyalter.com or her two blogs at http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com or http://potluckwithjudy.blogspot.com. Or look for her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Judy-Alter-Author/366948676705857?fref=ts or on Twitter where she is @judyalter. Murder at the Blue Plate Café is available at http://www.amazon.com/Murder-Blue-Plate-Mystery-ebook/dp/B00BGOKVNK/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1363374102&sr=1-1&keywords=Murder+at+the+Blue+Plate+Cafe Print copies will soon be available at your local bookstore or from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Turquoise Morning Press Bookstore.