Mac and cheese, you have never been the same since I left Luby’s behind

A friend of mine was featured in a great little article yesterday’s Chronicle.  The original article.

July 22, 2008, 6:06PM

Remembrance of Luby’s past

By LISA GRAY
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

James Glassman hadn’t been to a Luby’s in ages. Glassman is a project manager at an architecture firm, a restaurant lover, a Web site proprietor. He’s way too hip to eat at cafeterias.

But he felt a pang when he realized the Luby’s that once stood at 5215 Buffalo Speedway was gone. The building came down in late 2007, and its parking lot and the strip center next door were demolished earlier this month.

If you grew up in Texas, a Luby’s Lu Ann Platter prompts a rush of memories that would shame Proust’s madeleine, and that Luby’s was the one that Glassman considered his. In the ’70s and ’80s, when his parents fed him Sunday dinners there, Glassman always loaded his tray with the same meal: fried fish, fried okra, macaroni and cheese, and a slice of pecan pie. His brother went for the green Jell-O.

That Luby’s, he says, was “the old people’s Luby’s” even before a retirement community opened behind it. It was also “the Rockets’ Luby’s” during the era when NBA champions presided over the nearby Summit. Once Rockets bad boy Vernon Maxwell was arrested in that parking lot. He’d allegedly been waving a handgun.

Another time, Glassman spotted Clyde Drexler quietly eating dinner with his family. Clyde “the Glide”! One of the greatest players of all time! He used the same trays, and the same green napkins, as everyone else.

Glassman wonders what Luby’s Clyde goes to now.

 Jell-O salad

Believe it or not, cafeterias once seemed futuristic and forward-thinking. In 1909, on a business trip to Chicago, a clothes merchant named Harry Luby fell in love with what was then a relatively new concept: A restaurant that embraced mass production and assembly-line service. Back home in Springfield, Mo., he copied the formula, launching a string of successful cafeterias, none of which bore his name. Texas proved especially fertile ground for the business, and Luby retired in San Antonio. 

Luby’s, as we know it now, was the product of Harry’s son Bob. In 1946, after returning home from World War II, he conceived a cafeteria for the post-war era. Critics suggested that San Antonio’s former soldiers, tired of military mess lines, would shun the place. But in point of fact, they brought their whole families.

Luby’s was democratic, casual when most restaurants felt formal. The food was the stuff that Southerners might have cooked themselves at home: roast beef, fried fish, fried chicken and chicken-fried steak. And, of course, there was Jell-O, served not just as a translucent dessert, but also as an opaque green salad. (The secret ingredient? Horseradish. I kid you not.)

The chain arrived in Houston in 1965 — not as Luby’s, exactly, but as Romano’s Cafeteria, a spiffy, upscale testing ground for the chain to try innovations it might introduce to regular Luby’s. Glassman’s parents remember the Buffalo Speedway location’s short life as Romano’s, but Glassman can’t even picture the place’s sign before its conversion.

Luby’s connoisseurs contend that the chain went downhill after 1982, when the company went public. House of Plenty, a history of Luby’s, paints the struggle as a clash between “the financial experts” and “the cafeteria men.” As businessmen overruled the cafeteria’s longtime managers, the chain expanded too far, too fast, according to authors Carol Johnston and Carol Dawson.

It also suffered horrible misfortune, such as the 1991 “Luby’s massacre” in Killeen. With 23 people dead and 20 wounded, it ranked as the deadliest shooting rampage at that point in American history.

More hideous news followed six years later, as the chain’s fast growth was proving shaky. Shortly before his first board meeting, the new CEO committed suicide. The company went into a tailspin.

The chain began to reverse its decline in 2001, after Chris and Harris Pappas joined its management team. The Pappas brothers, part of the Houston restaurant family, moved Luby’s headquarters here and began revamping the chain. They tinkered with its food, closed some of its restaurants and gave other locations face-lifts. Now down to a fighting weight of about 120 restaurants, the chain is starting to expand again.

On July 10, the chain unveiled the upgraded version of its restaurant on Post Oak Boulevard. Longtime Lubyites generally approve the changes, such as flat-screen TVs and black granite counters that the trays slide along smoothly. New entrees include blackened salmon and chicken parmesan alfredo — old-hat dishes anywhere else, but at Luby’s, signs of a revolution.

But the Jell-O remains, in all its jiggly splendor. At the beginning of the serving line, just after you’ve collected your tray, you face opaque lime-green squares, consorting unrepentantly with leafier, more virtuous salads.

Looking at that Jell-O, you know exactly where you are.

Amnesia Houston

I met Glassman at the Luby’s on Waugh. “The gay Luby’s,” he calls that Montrose location. A pair of notably well-groomed and muscular men at one table may have fit Glassman’s label, but the thrumming lunch crowd offered a broad cross-section of Houston and provided surprisingly good people-watching. A beautiful black woman’s cropped top revealed a complicated tattoo on her stomach. Lumbering middle-aged guys squeezed their guts into a booth near a twentysomething whippet barking into a Bluetooth headset. A Hispanic dad held a diaper bag while his wife wedged the baby into a high chair. 

Amid all that multiculti modernity, Glassman and I talked about his nostalgic Web site, amnesiahouston.org. He started it a couple of years ago: one man’s attempt to nail down a city that slips away even as you’re looking at it.

Sometimes he organizes Amnesia events, such as a drinking session last year at Leon’s Lounge, the Midtown dive that his research revealed to be the oldest continuously operated bar in Houston, dating from the mid-’50s. More recently, he sent his e-mail list his remembrance of Luby’s.

“So few people have emotional investments in Houston,” he lamented over lunch. “People come to this city planning to make their money and leave.” He hopes to remind people of their connections, to make them value the place while they’re here, to show them the city’s depth and history — even in places as unlikely as a chain cafeteria.

The waitress refilled his Diet Coke. A while later, smiling, she refilled it again.

We were obviously in no hurry to leave.

lisa.gray@chron.com

Advertisements

~ by ladamesansregrets on July 24, 2008.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: