You Can Throw Your Shells on the Floor, and Dining Out, 1970s Style

Last night we went out to dinner with my 4 year-old neice. She assured me that the restaurant, a steakhouse, served "cowboy food," and, best of all, they gave you unlimited peanuts and allowed you to throw the shells right on the floor! No, really, right on the floor!

This was her new favorite restaurant (primarily due to the peanuts), but it turned out that on her previous visit, the wait staff had been decked out in cowboy hats and boots (but not last night). Also, much like at Johnny Rocket's, the waiters have to get up and dance when a particular song comes up on the jukebox. (It's not bad enough that they have to wait tables for what may well be less than minimum wage, they have to perform every half hour? Secondly, and perhaps directly related to the aforementioned humiliation--these poor kids couldn't line dance to save their lives.)

Observe the large quantity of peanut shells underfoot.

Anyway, I got to thinking about what a big impression little things--like being allowed (nay, encouraged!) to throw peanut shells on the floor--make on you when you're four years old, and I had a childhood flashback of the Betty Crocker Tree House restaurant. In my memory, the place is as magical as Disneyland...decorated like a tropical forest, full of birds (fake birds) and complete with a chirping soundtrack that assured me that they were all about to come to life. Apparently this early General Mills restaurant venture was short-lived (1968-1973 or so) and I could only find two photos.

Hey everyone, it's the '70s!

The Betty Crocker Tree House I remember was in Columbus, Ohio (on Morse Road, according to my internet search). Mr. O'Kitten also remembers one, which must've been on Long Island. Google found one in Scottsdale, AZ. I found an ad in a 1973 newspaper that indicates that there were 3 of them. Maybe that was it?

The Tree House Restaurant is described in a 1970 Scottsdale newspaper: "'Dramatic' is the only word to describe the interior. Outside-inside labels the decor. Trees and greenery...make the Tree House bright and cheerful." ("Colorful garden colors" meant "adobe golds, tawny reds and browns, wildflower yellows, subtle olive greens...against a background of natural wood tones." Welcome to the height of '70s moderne! "Four pyramid skylights will provide natural sunlight for the trees that will grow inside." Which means that I didn't imagine the trees. And the b/w photo (above) proves that I didn't imagine the cages of birds, either--check out the upper right of the photo. Whew!

My family didn't go out to eat very often, so it always felt special when we did. I remember celebrating my birthday (maybe my 5th?) at a Bill Knapp's in Michigan. According to Wikipedia, "Bill Knapp's 6-inch chocolate birthday cakes, officially known as Bill Knapp's Celebration Cakes, were regarded as one of the chain's dearest features." Now that you mention it, I do seem to remember being brought a cake. And it's the first time I remember celebrating my birthday at a restaurant, with people singing out in public. That's crazy!

I miss restaurant placemats.

The International House of Pancakes also reminds me of the 1970s. There was one near where we lived in Augusta, Georgia. I don't actually remember eating there (okay, maybe once), but the big turquoise A-frame roof was something of a landmark. We did, however, have a station wagon that looked a lot like the one on that placemat.

We occasionally ate at Ponderosa. Our Ponderosa looked just like the one in the photo. Cafeteria-style restaurants were popular in the 1970s, and I remember getting my tray, going through the line (just like my school cafeteria!) and placing an order, then you'd get your steak or burger and it'd have that little plastic flag in it that was pink or red or whatever to indicate if it was rare, medium, or well-done. I love this 1977 TV commercial, because it shows the exact plate I remember: the metal one that sat in that thick wooden base with the shaped handles. And the foil-wrapped baked-potatoes--awesome!

Down South we had Shoney's Big Boy. It was a family-style restaurant, like Denny's, Bob's, or Frisch's. Apparently, Shoney's dropped the Big Boy from it's branding in 1984. We used to eat at Shoney's when my grandparents came to visit. It was one of those places that gave kids a coloring book and crayons (my niece was keen to get hers at the restaurant last night). I always found the "big boy" in his oddly checkered overalls a bit disturbing.

The last place I want to mention is Swensen's. It's the place we went for very, very special occasions, like after my annual piano recital or special school perfomances. If you've never been to one, it's a "San Francisco-style" ice cream parlor, and the menu has great sundaes (I mean, "cable carfaits") with names like the Coit Tower and the Gold Rush. The best part, though, was the cookie.