INKSPOTS

Maybe just an eatery, but Shoney’s was part of life

Rick Norton Assoc. Editor
Posted 9/24/16

“We all have our time machines. Some take us back; they’re called memories. Some take us forward; they’re called dreams.”

— Jeremy Irons

English actor: Film,

television, …

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INKSPOTS

Maybe just an eatery, but Shoney’s was part of life

Posted

“We all have our time machines. Some take us back; they’re called memories. Some take us forward; they’re called dreams.”

— Jeremy Irons

English actor: Film,

television, theater

(b. Sept. 19, 1948)

———

Maybe we get more retrospective as we age, or maybe we just long to slow this runaway train called life.

Either way, I felt a familiar sting in both eyes upon hearing the old Shoney’s building on Keith Street — a favored Friday night hangout for my wife and me in our early years — is coming down.

Rock sensation Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons once recorded a song titled, “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” They never said anything about big boys.

Good thing ... because this big boy came close to tears.

I know. I know. It’s just a bunch of wood. It’s merely an abandoned shack. It could never compare to the vibrancy and rush of today’s modern eateries. What’s the big deal if somebody wants to come along with a bulldozer, a blueprint and a better plan?

In truth, it’s not.

It’s just that ... well, it was a part of the every-other-week part of our lives that we once took for granted. Even in its day, Shoney’s was just a place to eat. But it was an original place. It was a happy place that was a big part of Cleveland when we moved to town in ’77 as newlyweds and fresh college grads looking to put our stamp on success.

It was our welcome mat to Bradley County.

Back then, Cleveland was a lot smaller with fewer people and even fewer dining choices.

I remember the day my wife and I arrived. It was early June 1977. With the help of my older sister Fay and brother-in-law Gary, we transported our meager set of belongings across the state in a mid-sized U-Haul.

After emptying the truck of its hand-me-down furniture, and still not completely filling our two-room apartment, we delivered the mechanical beast-of-burden to the nearest dealer and took off on a joy ride along the streets of our new hometown in Gary’s two-toned Monte Carlo.

Coming from small towns — my wife from Greenfield, just northwest of Jackson, and me from Collierville, a hop and a skip east of Memphis — we weren’t accustomed to such luxury in restaurants: Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Hardee’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Pizza Inn, Captain D’s and a Wendy’s knock-off named Judy’s, among others. We all but exclaimed, “Oh my!”

Back at home, Collierville had ... well, nothing. Greenfield had even less.

Too, Cleveland had its own mall. It was the old Cleveland Mall on Keith Street (now the Life Care Centers of America Campbell Plaza), and it even had a Morrison’s restaurant. On the southern end of Keith it had another mall, the Village Shopping Center.

Two malls in one town? It was almost too much for two grown country kids whose nearest entertainment used to be the movie theaters and bowling lanes in Memphis, and the Casey Jones Village in Jackson.

Probably our biggest discovery among eateries in Cleveland was Shoney’s.

Along with Pizza Inn, Wendy’s and Hardee’s — and another much-beloved place called Gondolier — Shoney’s became one of our “go-to” restaurants, especially on Friday night after work or the occasional Wednesday or Thursday when the evening buffet featured breakfast.

But Friday was always our favorite. It came at the end of a long week. We were tired. We were hungry for somebody else’s cooking. We just wanted to sit. We just wanted to eat. And we wanted someone else to do all the work.

So did a lot of other Cleveland folks.

Unlike its latter years when business slowed, Shoney’s in those days was always packed with people. Friday nights were the worst.

On any given Friday after meeting up back at the duplex (after only a year we had moved from our two-room apartment to a four-room duplex on Peerless Road), we’d load up in the white Ford Pinto or the brown Ford Granada and make a beeline to Shoney’s.

We knew it would be crowded. It always was.

Walking into what seemed a spacious lobby with cushioned benches on one end and a glass checkout counter on the far side, we’d be greeted by a swarm of hungry humanity.

Folks were sitting. Folks were standing. Folks were leaning against aging walls. Folks were chatting. Folks were staring into the eatery’s interior, hoping they’d get this table or that booth once an earlier set of customers had taken a final sip of sweet tea and dabbed with paper napkin one last time.

Most nights you’d run into somebody you knew, whether it came while waiting in the busy lobby or waving from across the way at a table full of friends or acquaintances from somewhere in the community.

We had no family on the Eastern end of the state so folks we knew were those we’d met at work, at play or in the neighborhood.

Back then Shoney’s used a number system. You’d wade through the lobby crowd, get your ticket and dissolve into the masses to await your turn.

If the cushioned benches were already taken — and most of the time they were — we’d join the others standing in the middle of the lobby. But, I did have my favorite spot for waiting. My wife always thought me crazy, but she understood the concept.

Near the cash register that sat on top of that glass counter, and just a step or two from the bathroom doors, was a tiny cubby hole — a miniature closet, if you will — where patrons would hang their heavy coats if they didn’t want to lug them all the way to the table. Most folks didn’t use it, meaning bare wire hangers suspended from the wooden rod stayed bare.

On those occasions, and especially on busy Friday nights when the lobby was bustling with people and chatter, I’d back my way into the little closet. It was my own private little refuge. While dodging the hangers with bobbing head, I’d carry on a steady conversation with my wife who stood at the narrow opening.

If it seems comical, well, it was. But we made the most of it. Then again, we were young. And the lobby was full. Folks did what folks had to do until their numbers were called.

As the hostess guided us to our table, I’d always glance over to the buffet to check on the night’s fare. Sometimes it was seafood. Sometimes it was country cooking with lots of mashed potatoes, gravy, veggies and chicken-fried streak.

It didn’t matter what it was because it was always good and there was always plenty of it.

I can’t remember a bad experience at Shoney’s. And I remember lots of good: strawberry pie and chocolate fudge cake, just for starters.

We never walked away hungry and we always loved the time together ... just to relax and catch up on the other’s week. These were my early years in newspaper work so I was away from home far too many evenings.

In its heyday, Shoney’s was a Cleveland hotspot. It was our hotspot, one we borrowed from Cleveland natives who remembered the day it first opened. That came a long time before our arrival.

In the demise of its popularity, Shoney’s struggled ... not because the restaurant was doing anything wrong, but because the “little town” of Cleveland was outgrowing the term. And with growth came new restaurants, innovative ideas, improved selection and diverse cuisine.

Cleveland people were not unlike those in other towns. They flocked to all things new. Some they liked. Some they loved. Some they embraced as a new “go to.”

For simplicity, for the familiar feel and sometimes for the better price, they’d periodically return to their Shoney’s. But it was too little, too late. And it just wasn’t the same. The handwriting was on the wall and the home of the Big Boy would soon become the latest in Cleveland’s annals of past eateries.

We loved our Shoney’s. In its day, it was part of us and in some small way we were a part of it; at least, while we were young.

But age brings change.

So it has with us. So it did for the little Keith Street diner whose limited parking made the crowds seem all the more huge.

With the closing of Shoney’s came the opening of another restaurant, this one featuring Mexican cuisine and modest crowds.

It too closed, and the building has remained empty, barren of life and free from the burdens of expectation.

We are told the structure is being leveled and in its place a bank will be born.

If true, then it is good. There is no harm in change. There is no disgrace in that which is new.

We’ll always have our memories. We’ll forever point to the good times, to a day long ago when young newlyweds embraced a dream and a favorite restaurant nourished their soul.

If it’s goodbyes that bring us peace, then let us bid farewell to a lost part of us.

But in so doing, we should remember this: Lost is not the same as forgotten.

And it is our Shoney’s on Keith Street that we will never forget.

It was there when we needed it. We were there when a city wanted it most.

———

(About the writer: Rick Norton is an associate editor at the Cleveland Daily Banner. Email him at rick.norton@clevelandbanner.com.)

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