The “Mom and Pop” eateries strung along the streets of downtown Johnson City in the ’40s and ’50s have since become a hodgepodge of local and chain restaurants that line busy areas of North Roan Street and State of Franklin Road.
In 1953, Johnson City had 62 mostly diner-style restaurants that were located within a short distance of the downtown Fountain Square area.
“All these places just had great food,” said Bob Cox, a local historian and author of “Bob Cox’s Yesteryear” column in the Johnson City Press. “Downtown was an absolutely fabulous place to go. It was a time when everything was great. There were so many people working downtown and big crowds on the weekend, so they did a roaring business.”
One of Cox’s personal favorites was the Dutch Maid Drive-In, 925 W. Market Street. Owned by Otto Burgner, the establishment stayed open for 31 years and at one time served 35-cent hamburgers, 10-cent soft drinks and fried shrimp platters for $1.
The menu was somewhat limited back then, Cox said, but restaurants tried their best to stand out with a novel concept. The Dutch Maid Drive-In touted its “Pizza Pie,” with seven different cheeses that Burgner claimed to be the best in the area. The drive-in also introduced a “Jumbo Burger” before any other restaurants thought about increasing patty size.
And though many of the restaurants took after a diner style, owners often named their restaurant a “café.” A few examples include Guy’s Café, 126 W. Market, Piedmont Café, 116 W. Main, and Sevier Café, 115 Fountain Square.
Cox also had fond memories of warm lunches at Byrd’s Restaurant, 101 E. Market, Dinty Moore’s Restaurant, 121 E. Market, and Ed’s Town House, 101 Buffalo.
“He (the owner) had a style,” Cox said of Ed’s Town House that replaced the Boston Shoe Shop. “If you’d go in there, he would always come up with a really good meal for me. It was like he was saving food knowing I was going to come in.”
Sometimes service is just as important as the food, but taste sure seems to be the deciding factor on whether most diners will make a second visit to a restaurant. Back when Cox studied at East Tennessee State University, he said all the cafés served delicious hamburgers cooked on the grill and placed between two warm buns.
“It seemed like they tasted better than they do today,” he said. “They weren’t large. I don’t remember any double burgers. There were so good and they cost a quarter and later 50 cents.”
The similar food selection at Johnson City restaurants created some stiff competition between places like the Dixie Drive-In, the Spot No. 1 and the Texas Steer Drive-In.
Now, hungry folks aren’t just limited to a hamburger and a side of fries. Johnson City offers every style of cuisine from Chinese to German and Italian. A number of popular spots still draw people downtown, such as Freiburg’s German Restaurant, One12 Downtown and The Main Street Pizza Company, but no one can pick his next dining destination without thinking about “restaurant row” on North Roan Street that is filled with national chains like Olive Garden, the newly added Bonefish Grill, plus local favorites Jack’s City Grill, Poor Richard’s Uptown and Sahib’s Fine Indian Cuisine. There are also bustling restaurant hubs off several sections of State of Franklin Road where hungry customers can choose from fast foods like Chick-fil-A and Pal’s or a sit-down dinner at El Ranchito or Miso Teriyaki House.
A few city eateries have managed to keep generations of customers interested in their food. The Peerless, 2531 N. Roan St., has been open since 1938 and was once located at 320 W. Market St. The Firehouse Restaurant, 627 W. Walnut St., has continued to serve its one-of-a-kind barbecue for more than 30 years at the former Walnut Street Fire Hall.