Theme restaurants seem to be on the wane. Most of them reached their peak in the 1990s.
Though it’s probably considered a theme restaurant today, Hard Rock Café was a legit independent in London in the 1970s when a couple of ex-pats— who were having trouble finding a good hamburger— opened up a small American/rock-and-roll inspired burger joint. It eventually came stateside and grew quickly from coast to coast. Within a few years, other concepts were taking the memorabilia-as-atmosphere formula and make a success out of it. Movie actors Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger opened Planet Hollywood (Hard Rock Goes To The Movies). They started with a bang and then the concept waned. Today only a few Planet Hollywood restaurants that survived.
There was a country-music themed restaurant (Hard Rock Goes Country) for a minute, and NASCAR threw their hat in the ring for a little while (Hard Rock Goes Racing and makes a few hundred left turns in a row). Several celebrities have lent their name to restaurant concepts with dreams of multiple units and major financial success. Not too many remain.
Before there were themed restaurants mainly opened out of necessity. In the “old days” restaurant concepts centered around food. A need was discovered and a restaurant was built around it. There weren’t any overly decorated, highly themed cafes 50 years ago.
In the 1940s and 1950s in this part of the world the closest we ever got to catchy gimmicks were round-table restaurants. But those weren’t conceived with gimmickry in mind, but necessity. I love round-table restaurants.
For those who never had the pleasure of eating in a round-table restaurant, they are restaurants with large round tables that seat 10-12 guests each and are located throughout several dining rooms (typically in an old house). A large portion of the inside of the table was a giant lazy Susan. Guests turned the lazy Susan at their own pace and ate family style as food was constantly brought from the kitchen and replenished in bowls that looked like something your grandmother used. The food was typical home cooking— butterbeans, black-eyed peas, corn, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, pork chops, cornbread, and biscuits.
I love the concept because I love sitting and sharing a meal with people and making new friends over food. Today there is one round table restaurant remaining in Mississippi. The Dinner Bell in McComb. Years ago there were several round-table restaurants throughout the state. The most famous of all roundtable restaurants was The Revolving Tables Restaurant at the Medenhall Hotel which was opened in 1915 and, closed in 2001.
Several decades ago I was in McComb for a book signing and timed my visit so I could have lunch at The Dinner Bell back when the Lopinto family owned it. Round-table restaurants are a come-and-go concept. As soon as a space opens at a table someone else sits down. About halfway through my second plate of fried eggplant, country comedian and storyteller Jerry Clower— a native to that region of the state— walked in. Some were finished with their meal, others were halfway through, and still others were just beginning to eat. Clower stood up, banged a fork on his tea glass to grab the attention of all the guests seated at several tables throughout two separate rooms, and proclaimed loudly, “For over 50 years I have said grace before eating a meal. If y’all don’t mind, I’m going to bless this food for all of us.” He then began to deliver one of the most poignant pre-meal blessings I have ever witnessed. Once he was finished you could have heard a kernel of rice drop on the Oriental rug, he sat down and loudly proclaimed, “Pass the fried eggplant, please.”
My area of the state had a roundtable restaurant in Columbia. It burned in January and hasn’t been rebuilt. The thing I loved about the Columbia Roundtable Restaurant was that they cut their own chicken and, if you lucked up, the basket of chicken that passed in front of you on the lazy Susan had a pulley bone in it.
That’s another thing that is on the wane. No one serves pulley bones anymore. I have met adults over 40 who didn’t even know what a pulley bone is. But that’s another column for another day.
If you have ever eaten at a roundtable restaurant, I suggest you hop in your car as soon as you can and drive to McComb to eat at The Dinner Bell to see the last of a breed. If you’re lucky, someone will offer up a moving prayer before the meal.
1 /4 cup Bacon grease (or canola oil)
8 cups Squash, cut into one-inch cubes
2 tsp Garlic, minced
1 cup Onion, small dice
1 /4 cup Red pepper, small dice
1 1 /2 tsp Salt
1 /2 tsp Creole Seasoning
2 cups Mushroom Béchamel Sauce (or cream of mushroom soup)
1 cup Sour cream
1 cup Swiss cheese, grated
1 /2 cup Parmesan cheese
1 cup Ritz cracker crumbs (about 1 /2 sleeve)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat half of the bacon grease in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook squash until very tender (approximately 15 minutes). Stir often so that it does not get too brown. Place cooked squash in a colander. Using a large spoon or spatula press squash firmly to remove excess liquid.
Place remaining bacon grease in the same skillet and cook onions, garlic, peppers and seasoning over medium heat for four to five minutes. In a mixing bowl, whisk together Mushroom Béchamel Sauce, sour cream, egg, and Swiss cheese. Fold squash and vegetables into mushroom mixture and place all in a two-quart baking dish.
Bake uncovered 35 minutes. Combine Parmesan cheese and Ritz cracker crumbs. Spread over top of casserole and bake an additional 10 minutes. Remove from oven and serve. Yield: 8 – 10 servings