Unintentional Time Machines
January 9, 2021 8:58 AM   Subscribe

What are the best pre-'80s 20th century restaurants in your city that were contemporary when they opened but haven't been extensively renovated or updated? The kind that act as a sort of unintentional, possibly grimy time machine, whether it be an original '70s McDonalds, '60s supper club or '50s drive-in?

Dreaming of post-COVID travel, I'd love to put together a small map of the kinds of places that I like to go, and I've always enjoyed visiting 20th century places that were contemporary to their time but haven't been updated since (and may be on their last legs). Places like the pre-renovation Clifton's Cafeteria or Bahooka in LA, or Trader Vics and Tad's Steaks in the Bay Area, Mader's or Leon's in Milwaukee, the Peppermill in Las Vegas, or even a run-down totally '70s Arby's with the big old hat sign. The food doesn't even have to be particularly good! Anywhere in the world is fine. Cheaper can sometimes be better!

Strangely, it's easier to find historic places from earlier centuries because they're so uncommon and have been turned into attractions, or restaurants that have been around a long time but went through several updates, and it's fairly easy to find things that are a little out of date... I'm looking for the unrenovated restaurants from 1910-1979 that are often just considered dusty cast-offs and are tough to track down.

Thanks for any pointers!
posted by eschatfische to Food & Drink (51 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Chef-O-Nette in Columbus (Upper Arlington), Ohio. They claim to have invented the drive-through window. But the drive-through is the most contemporary part of the place. It’s like a museum. I like the food but every time I’ve gone I’ve admired the atmosphere more. It also doesn’t seem like they’ve updated their prices since opening. The cheeseburger is like $2.50 plus sides, and I once got a pork chop dinner for $4. Classic spot.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:09 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

House of Prime Rib in San Francisco opened in 1949 and doesn’t appear to have changed one whit. And the food is excellent, if you like prime rib, Yorkshire pudding, baked potato, and creamed spinach.

The Apple Pan in LA is from 1947. Great burgers and an irascible cook.
posted by ejs at 9:15 AM on January 9 [4 favorites]

Hazel's Drive In, Antioch CA.
Pann's diner in LA.
Dozens of pizza places, diners, and Chinese restaurants in my economically-depressed corner of NY state.
posted by wintersweet at 9:20 AM on January 9

The Madonna Inn in SLO is like a time capsule in the best, tackiest way.
posted by missjenny at 9:32 AM on January 9 [6 favorites]

Sam's Resaurant on Court Street in Brooklyn seems to still be a going concern. I haven't been there in close to 20 years, but it doesn't look like they've renovated. Hope the food is still as good as it was then.
posted by rikschell at 9:35 AM on January 9

Murray's in Minneapolis. Great steaks, ancient waiters in formal attire and a wonderful setting where the Rat Pack would feel right at home.
posted by carmicha at 9:53 AM on January 9 [3 favorites]

In Little Rock, most of the restaurants in this category sell either BBQ or catfish (there are some pretty old Tex-Mex joints, but they tend to remodel every decade or so).

Sims BBQ (multiple locations) is so old-school it still sells quarts of beer, while the even older Lassis Inn is so old-school it has both a jukebox and a No Dancing sign. Or, for a place that's a little less well-known and might not be around forever, try H.B.'s BBQ.

One more mention, though it's more '80s than pre-'80s: Homer's East.
posted by box at 9:56 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

I feel like Parkside Candy in Buffalo NY is an example of this. Also Mama's Pizza in Saint Paul, MN. Is Ella's Deli in Madison WI still open?
posted by shadygrove at 10:01 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Also Al's Breakfast in Minneapolis.
posted by shadygrove at 10:02 AM on January 9

You're pretty much describing Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Particularly its downtown, Westmont, Southmont, and Cambria City areas, plus the neighboring town of Windber.

[Edited to add: Sorry, just realized I'm not answering your question per se, so feel free to flag for deletion. But if my answer is helpful in a places-to-research-or-visit kind of way, you'll find a lot there that meets your criteria.]
posted by Rykey at 10:22 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

I love the Little Rock mention (hi, hometown!).

Here in San Francisco, Tadich Grill has been around since 1849.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:36 AM on January 9 [3 favorites]

Check out Lim's Cafe in Redding, CA. Their current location opened in 1957 and it's very unique: half 1950s diner, half 1950s American Chinese restaurant.
posted by muddgirl at 10:53 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Rykey's comment about Johnstown PA, with which I heartily concur, reminded me about Rizzo's Restaurant in Windber. Classic Italian.
posted by carmicha at 11:16 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

circa 1970s - Arch Diner, Brooklyn, NY
circa 1925 - Eddie's Sweet Shop, Queens, NY
opened in the '50s (limited '70s updates) - Napoleone's Pizza House, National City, CA

Interesting, outside your parameters:
1560 / 1642 / 1926 / 1955 - The Red Fox Room at the Lafayette Hotel, San Diego, CA (Fall 2020 relocation plan)
circa 1820s - Neir's Tavern, Queens, NY
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:32 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Durant’s Steakhouse in Phoenix is pure Rat Pack excellence.
posted by padraigin at 11:38 AM on January 9

The one that's gotten a little renovated around here is The Wayside, so maybe not your target demo, but right up the road is a truly bizarre "Why are people still eating here" steakhouse called Steak House Restaurant which has what you want but the food isn't great. You might want to try the Skunk Hollow Tavern which even describes itself as "frozen in time." A few from Massachusetts: McGoverns in Fall River (stuck in the 70s, decent food), Oxhead Tavern in Sturbridge (variable food, stuck in a colonial vibe as seen through a 70s lens) and Jakes Coffee Shop in Marlborough MA.
posted by jessamyn at 11:56 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

In Sacramento, Pancake Circus. Warning: clowns.
posted by Rash at 11:59 AM on January 9

Maury's Tiny Cove, Cincinnati, OH, in which several scenes of the movie Carol were filmed.
posted by cooker girl at 12:07 PM on January 9

Route 1 in Saugus MA still has a couple of restaurants that time has not changed much. The Continental has been in business since the late 1950s and is largely as it ever was. And, of course, The Kowloon retains much of its original charm. Sadly, the Hilltop Steak House went under a few years ago, though the giant neon cactus sign is still standing.
posted by briank at 12:17 PM on January 9 [5 favorites]

Manhattan, not tough to track down, previously fancy and now dying: The Russian Tea Room interior dates from the 1930s, Sardis from the 1950s.

Knickerbocker, which is not dying, hasn't been changed since it opened in 1977. The Players Club hasn't changed at all* since day dot but you would need a member to take you. Tragically, you've just missed 21.

(Thanks for asking this question. It's been fun to remember these places.)
posted by DarlingBri at 1:03 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

El Toreo in Pasadena, California, is a great hole-in-the wall Mexican place. On either side of the restaurant are faded posters of the presidents of the US and of Mexico...the last US president is Kennedy, which gives a plausible date for when they last renovated.
posted by LadyOscar at 1:35 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Florida Avenue Grill in DC is still an institution. Has an amazing interior and is wallpapered with celebrity autographs spanning several generations.
posted by veery at 2:42 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]

In Chicago, Lou Mitchell's for breakfast and Italian Village for lunch. (rest in peace, Como Inn...)

In Memphis, Charles Vergo's Rendevous for ribs.
posted by JoeZydeco at 2:47 PM on January 9

Also in LA, and more specifically Hollywood, is The Musso & Frank Grill, which is absolutely stuck in time in the 1950s. The hierarchy of dress is still evident: the waiters all wear red jackets and bowties, the busboys wear green.
posted by jeremias at 3:03 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]

In North Strathfield in Sydney there’s the Liu Rose, which is a Chinese restaurant in decor preserved from 1971, cocktail bar and everything.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:36 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

The Musso & Frank Grill
As featured heavily in Netflix's "The Kominsky Method".

Ray's Diner, Excelsior Springs, MO.

All of the ones I'm about to name in Toronto are closed right now, but The Senator (old-school high-end diner), Vesta Lunch (tiny long thin lunch counter). The Patrician Grill, The Wexford (expensive diner with faded 70s decor) and The Ave (Garment district) are all a step back in time.
posted by scruss at 3:45 PM on January 9

You'll want to include 94-year-old Colonnade in Atlanta, assuming they make it.
posted by missrachael at 4:17 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Rae's in Santa Monica, CA sprang immediately to mind. Everything about it is vintage 1958 down to the fact that it's cash-only. Given its location and iconic look you have almost certainly seen it in a movie. But the prices are low and the food is great diner fare.
posted by potrzebie at 4:29 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Skyline Restaurant in Portland is deliberately kept retro. Nothing about it is accidental but it's very much of it's time.
Original Hotcake House, good luck getting a seat.
posted by fiercekitten at 4:49 PM on January 9

Micheletti’s Restaurant in Seekonk, MA, near Providence, RI, is a small diner (with an overhead model train and an ice cream window!) that was founded in the 1970s and hasn’t changed much since.
posted by Seeking Direction at 5:35 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Denver CO

Bastien's Steakhouse, 60's parasol

Buckhorn Exchange, 1880's restaurant with liquor license #1

Cruise Room, 1930's bar in a hotel based on a bar in the Titanic.
posted by nickggully at 5:51 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Hungry Herbies drive in located in Cache Creek, BC, Canada. Despite the name they have dine in. Road trip hamburger joint that hasn't changed much in 50+ years.
posted by Mitheral at 6:22 PM on January 9

All American drive-in in Massapequa, NY

White Manna in Hackensack, NJ

Hildebrandt's in Williston Park, NY

Bigelow's Clams in Rockeville Center, NY
posted by miscbuff at 7:18 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Seven Dwarfs in Wheaton, IL. Great breakfast. (Their website will give you a taste of their commitment to never upgrading or following trends)

Alfie's Inn just down the road in Glen Ellyn, IL is also good for a trip back in time.
posted by MrJM at 7:27 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Sadly The Wexford didn’t make it through the first wave of COVID.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:27 PM on January 9

> Ray's Diner, Excelsior Springs, MO.

If you're coming to Missouri, in a similar vein is Town Topic Hamburgers, Kansas City (1937).
posted by flug at 7:51 PM on January 9

Tune Inn in DC. Since it's just a few blocks from the Capitol, you might think it would be a faux dive, but after 73 years, it's still the real thing, both menu and atmosphere, including the taxidermy.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:08 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Re briank's suggestion of Kowloon in Saugus, you're going to want to get there sooner rather than later post-pandemic, as they're looking towards retirement and redevelopment of the spot.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 9:37 PM on January 9

Ken's Pizza in Hutchinson, KS, has made only two changes since it opened in the '70s. It added a useless piece of plexiglass to the counter for covid, and one of the original decorative touches on a wall finally became so decrepit it either fell off or was taken down before it fell on a customer. Oh, and a Ms. PacMan game is gone and that space now has a small table. The place, inside and out, is orange and brown, and the benches in the booths are now uncomfortably close to the tables due to American expansionism. There are postcards all around showing what the city used to look like, and framed newspaper pages with old ads and cartoons. The pizza is excellent. This is part of a chain, but I haven't been to other Ken's places to see if any of them are more modern.
posted by bryon at 10:01 PM on January 9

Yep, I just saw the thing about Kowloon shared by a friend on Facebook a half hour ago.

To follow up on another reference above, Ella's Deli in Madison WI closed down three years ago -- and alas it was demolished just last month. I wouldn't have called it representative of any era, and the food wasn't all that great (and certainly not anything that an East Coaster would consider deli), but it's a loss.

However, Madison -- and the rest of WI and probably lots of the upper Midwest -- is dotted with supper clubs which practically exemplify this concept. These are purposefully unreconstructed, unrenovated places where the old-fashioned atmosphere and food is very much the point. And since the clientele is generally the sort of people who have been going to these sorts of places forever, they don't tend to become self-conscious parodies of themselves, they just stay themselves.

These places generally carry a 50s / early-60s vibe, with steak-heavy menus and lots of cocktails.
posted by sesquipedalia at 10:05 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Some of these might be outdated, but:

Bay area: Lois the Pie Queen, Nation's Giant Hamburgers; The Smokehouse (last time I was there, admittedly a long time ago, you could order a glass of buttermilk with your burger.). Tommy's Joynt.

DC: Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street (yes, it's famous, but it seems to fit the criteria); the Tune Inn; Jimmy T's (you said it didn't have to be particularly good; it's a place I like to go to even if the food is just OK); Cafe Mozart (you walk off a downtown street, through a German convenience store into what looks like the restaurant of an 80s Austrian equivalent of a Comfort Inn); in Falls Church, Pistone's Italian Inn for unreconstructed red sauce Italian. Zorba's Cafe and the Greek Deli (both different kinds of places, both fit the bill);

Houston: House of Pies; Golden Palace; Yuan Tien;

Pennsylvania: the Red Rabbit Drive In in Duncannon; Pipher's Diner in Wysox;

Florida: MoonLight Drive-In in Titusville. The menu doesn't specify what a "Chuck Wagon" is: it's a chicken-fried steak sandwich and it's good.
posted by pykrete jungle at 10:35 PM on January 9

Musso and Frank in LA is wonderful for this! Everything from the decor to the menu is perfectly period, with the bonus that the food, drinks, and service are still wonderful. Martini, shrimp cocktail, big steak, onion rings, joy.

Much less famous, Pacific Cafe in the Outer Richmond district in San Francisco has been open since 1974, and it's still 1974 inside. Great fresh seafood but nothing modern or fancy, free wine while you wait(!), and a total vintage SF vibe, like something that could have been in the movie Zodiac.
posted by mostlymartha at 10:51 PM on January 9

Aren't a couple of the grand old restaurants in New Orleans --by choice -- much as they were decades ago? I went to one for brunch a decade ago and got that sense, but I don't know it well enough to be sure.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:05 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

Napoleone's OMG! I worked there for a very short period in the late '70's. Good folk.
Also, The Cruise Room, I worked in the Oxford hotel in the 90's and served drinks in the Cruise Room one NYE.
Good memories. Both are legit, all the Denver Places are, and I'd add My Brothers Bar. I don't remember which one was first but it and the Buckhorn Exchange had the first liquor licenses in Denver. So old school, it was old school to your grans.
posted by evilDoug at 7:13 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]

I just noticed no links to Denver besides My Brother's so here they are:
Buckhorn Exchange
The Cruise Room
Bastien's Restaurant
posted by evilDoug at 7:19 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

We have a big-hat Arby's here in Lansing, Michigan.
posted by Orlop at 10:35 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]

Bernard's on Seneca in Seattle. Presumably a classy joint in its heyday, now wonderfully decrepit. I love it. Temporarily closed but I hope they'll reopen.
posted by mpark at 2:59 PM on January 10

Winnipeg has Rae and Jerry's, an old-school steakhouse frozen in time.
posted by irrelephant at 11:35 AM on January 11

Tony's Baltimore Grill, Atlantic City NJ
posted by scorpia22 at 9:01 PM on January 12

Such a great question.

The Chicken Pie Shop in San Diego was the first thing that came to mind, then the kind of awful Louis' Lunch in New Haven.

Internationally, when I was in Warsaw I spent most lunches eating at old school Milk Bars which, as I understand, are also somewhat of an endangered species. If I had limitless funds/time, a whole tour of post-Soviet time capsule eateries would be on my list (I could also happily live off potato dumplings and cabbage soup so YMMV).
posted by athirstforsalt at 4:13 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]

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