by Amy McCarthy
Dallas has its fair share of time-honored restaurant institutions, be they barbecue, Tex-Mex, or even classic French fare, but the most old-school of them all might be Highland Park Cafeteria. Originally established in 1925, the restaurant enjoys an impressively loyal following of locals who are devoted to the old-school cafeteria feel and food that the restaurant serves up daily for lunch and dinner.
Every day, hordes of diners — including many who have been eating here for decades, and some who literally come in every single day — queue up for twenty minutes or longer during peak hours to make their way down the cafeteria line. While the massive menu features plenty of comfort food with mass appeal like fried chicken, carved bone-in ham, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese, there are also some quirkier artifacts from your grandma’s retro cookbooks:
the strange marshmallow-and-fruit concoction known as ambrosia, liver and onions, jiggly tomato aspic with avocado chunks suspended in it, lima beans, Waldorf salad with maraschino cherries, and an eye-boggling selection of Jell-O desserts including the pastel wonder known as lime whip.
The atmosphere of Highland Park Cafeteria is also decidedly old-fashioned: Portraits of every U.S. President (and First Lady, thank you very much) line the walls of the buffet line and dining room. Notes from familiar show tunes and classical hits, played by 22-time Grammy nominee Larry Petty, ring out from the dining room’s grand piano. Customers regularly bring their children along to sing with Petty in front of a doting audience. One recent Sunday, a long-time regular brought along his violin to accompany Petty’s piano-playing as diners listened attentively to their impromptu rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
The restaurant’s name comes from its original flagship location on Knox Street, across from the Highland Park Pharmacy (its former building is now home to a Pottery Barn). At one time the company swelled to eight locations, but following the bank crisis of the 1980’s the chain fell on hard times, with the final remaining location in Casa Linda shuttering in late 2006. Current owner Jeff Snoyer has a real estate office nearby, and after witnessing the many potential customers who walked away dejected after seeing the “closed” sign, he purchased the business in 2007 determined to restore it to its original glory.
With zero restaurant experience to fall back on, he wisely brought on a former Luby’s manager to help him learn the ropes of managing such a large-scale cafeteria operation. On any given day, the restaurant serves up sixteen different varieties each of meat, desserts, vegetables, and salads, the majority of it made entirely from scratch by a staff of sixty in a gigantic kitchen that runs like clockwork.
Snoyer beams with visible pride as he introduces each of his staff members, noting exactly how long they’ve been here, their specific duties, and even their hobbies and how many children they have. Some of the kitchen workers have been with the restaurant for two or three decades; cook Ernest “Mister B” Bowens has cooked for Highland Park Cafeteria since the restaurant was in its original location on Knox Street. Snoyer says in a way, the restaurant practically runs itself thanks to his dedicated employees that take pride in their jobs.
Other Dallas restaurants may be focused on innovation, but the key to Highland Park Cafeteria’s success has been keeping it old-school. The most radical change you’ll see here is the upcoming addition of Haagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s to the ice cream selection, which for now is limited to good ol’ Blue Bell — and Snoyer seems to take comfort in the fact that if the buttered lima beans turn out a little too buttery one day, he’s got a battalion of loyal customers who will most certainly let him know.