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REX NELSON: Cafeteria fare

By Rex Nelson

This article was published May 17, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

On his way back to Waco, Texas, following an Easter weekend visit to Little Rock, my oldest son stopped at Bryce's Cafeteria in Texarkana for lunch. It's a stop he has been making most of his life. My wife is from south Texas. On trips to visit her relatives, we usually timed departures so we could eat at the venerable Texarkana restaurant, which closed its doors at the end of April after 86 years.

When I was a boy in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was usually the first choice if we were going out of town to eat. If a visit to the doctor or some shopping were involved, Little Rock was the destination. But to change things up from time to time, my parents would choose Texarkana since both of them loved eating downtown at Bryce's.

Downtown Texarkana was a busy place in those days. That was before restaurants and retailers moved out to Interstate 30. Shoppers from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, northwest Louisiana and southeast Oklahoma flocked to downtown businesses such as the Belk-Jones and Dillard's department stores. Earl Jones Sr., who was born in North Carolina where the Belk chain was founded, moved to Texarkana in October 1947 to open Belk-Jones. Meanwhile, William T. Dillard, who had been born at Mineral Springs in 1914, opened his first store at Nashville in Howard County in February 1938. He sold the Nashville store in 1948 and moved his family to Texarkana after purchasing a 45 percent interest in Wooten's Department Store. In 1949, Dillard purchased the remaining percentage of Wooten's.

As my son paid his bill that Monday following his final meal at Bryce's, he told the cashier of his first visit there. Like a lot of smart, high-strung boys, he was slow in getting potty-trained. Austin was obsessed in those days with trains and airplanes, and my mother came up with an idea. She told Austin that if he would get potty-trained, the two of them would take a trip on a real train. It worked, though it was a short journey. They boarded an Amtrak train at Arkadelphia and took it only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down I-30 in his Oldsmobile and picked them up at the Texarkana station. The three of them then had a big lunch at Bryce's.

"We've been hearing a lot of stories along those lines," the cashier told Austin, who's now 24.

Bryce Lawrence opened his cafeteria in 1931. It remained downtown until February 1989, when it moved near I-30 and Summerhill Road on the Texas side of the state line. A Chicago Tribune writer once declared that Bryce's "may have better food for the money than anyplace on earth." During his 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot, a Texarkana native, was asked to list his favorite restaurant in the world. His choice was Bryce's, of course. I would always start meals there with tomato aspic and finish with egg custard pie in honor of my mother.

Jane and Michael Stern, who became famous for their "Roadfood" series of books, once wrote of Bryce's: "There are more vegetables than most Yankees see in a year--purple-hulled peas, fried green tomatoes, red beans, turnip greens cooked with chunks of ham and a full array of potatoes, cheesy macaroni casseroles, rice casseroles, buttered cauliflower, sauced broccoli, etc. Among main courses, fried chicken is stupendously crunchy and big slabs of sweet ham are sliced to order. For dessert, we like Karo-coconut pie, hot cobbler with an ethereal crust, and banana pudding made with meringue and vanilla wafers. The entire experience is a culinary dream, including a smartly uniformed dining room staff (to help old folks and invalids with their trays, and to bus tables), and servers who address all men as 'sir' and ladies as 'ma'am.'"

Richard Lawrence, the son of Bryce Lawrence, died in February at age 65. The staff, some of whom had worked for the Bryce family for almost five decades, referred to him as "Big Daddy."

Death has also rocked another famous cafeteria family in the region, the Franke family of Little Rock. Bill K. Franke died just 12 days after Richard Lawrence. His obituary noted that he "spent the majority of his life serving Arkansas food to Arkansas people at his family business, Franke's Cafeteria." His death came just more than three months after his daughter, Christen Franke, died suddenly at age 37. Fortunately, the two Franke's locations in Little Rock are still going strong.

C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on West Capitol Avenue in 1919 and began a full bakery operation at 111 W. Third St. in 1922. He opened the first Franke's Cafeteria in 1924 at 115 W. Capitol in downtown Little Rock. Franke's son, William J. Franke, began running the operation in 1967. Bill K. Franke took over in 1983. Christen Franke was the fourth generation of the family to be involved. There once were Franke's Cafeterias in Fort Smith and Hot Springs. I eat lunch often at the downtown Little Rock location and always study a framed black-and-white photo of Capitol Avenue looking west toward the state Capitol. You can see the Franke's sign on the left and the sign for the Capitol Theater on the right. There's also a framed gavel that was used by Lee Cazort when he was the Arkansas House speaker in 1917, the Arkansas Senate president in 1921 and the state's lieutenant governor from 1929-31 and 1933-37.

Cafeterias were once common across the state. My family often would eat in the 1960s at a downtown Arkadelphia cafeteria called Homer's. Now locally owned cafeterias are becoming hard to find. Bryce's is history. Here's hoping that Franke's will flourish for many years to come.

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Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the director of corporate community relations for Simmons First National Corp. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 05/17/2017

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ozena says... May 17, 2017 at 11:34 a.m.

When eating at Bryce's you cohld expect to see your doctor , tire salesman, preacher, banker and society ladies from Hope holding up the line at the pie station. Now it's kung pao, curry or chimichangas for all, shirts and shoes not required. A pox on diversity and multiculturalism!
Millenials who cant do anything are setting the agenda for all.

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