Nostalgia can take you back, but it can’t take you all the way back. Not in Salem, Illinois. They tore down the Starlite Restaurant.
It was located in Salem, Illinois. I have never lived anywhere near Illinois, and I dined at the Starlite only twice in my life, but this roadside cafe of my dreams occupies a special corner of my mind. On April 25, 1965, I was on the road for the second day of my first extended drive across the US. The day before, I had left my parents’ home in Annapolis, Maryland, via US Route 50, my final destination being Colorado Springs, where I was stationed in the Air Force. I had been home on leave for nearly a month.
I had flown home. My parents helped me buy a new car, so I made plans to drive back. I got out the road atlas and chose Route 50, which would take me through Washington, DC, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and finally Colorado. I planned on being on the road four days and three nights.
On the first night, I stayed at a Howard Johnson’s motel in Chillicothe, Ohio. The next morning, I got up very early, had breakfast and headed out. I was starving by lunchtime, but no matter what town I passed through, I didn’t spot what looked like a good place to eat. It was drizzling and chilly, and I was getting tired of listening to the windshield wipers. But I just kept going and going.
Finally, about 1:30, I saw an attractive looking restaurant up ahead. There were a few cars parked in front, so I took a chance. It was nice and warm inside. I picked a booth by a large front window, and a very friendly waitress came over right away. I felt so lonely from being on the road by myself that I could have called her Mom. I glanced quickly at the menu and ordered the ultimate comfort food: a hot roast beef sandwich with mashed. Several minutes later, it was on the table in front of me, and what a pretty picture it made. On an oval plate sat the open-faced sandwich, flanked on each side by a large scoop of mashed potatoes (two scoops!), all covered with gravy. It was hot and delicious, and I felt like a king.
The following year, my Air Force hitch ended. I enrolled in college, graduated, got married and moved to New England. In 1971, my wife and I took a long vacation, driving slowly across the northern Midwest, down into Wyoming, and then to Colorado Springs. We took Route 50 on the way back home. One late morning, about an hour after we had driven through St. Louis, my wife said she was hungry, and I suddenly remembered the hot roast beef with mashed.
“It’s around here somewhere,” I thought out loud. “What’s around here?” she said. “A great restaurant, but I don’t remember the name. I once had a terrific lunch there. I hope it’s still around.” It was. A few minutes later, I saw it up ahead. “The Starlite,” I shouted. “That’s it. Let’s stop.”
It looked the same inside, and once again, the waitress was friendly. The hot roast beef was still on the menu, so after raving about it to my wife, we both ordered it. In a few minutes, they came out of the kitchen, two oval plates with mashed on both ends and the sandwich in the middle. I told the waitress my story about my visit in 1965, and she smiled and said, “We never change what works.”
It’s been 39 years since that last visit, but I still get hungry for the Starlite every once in a while, and I often wonder if it has survived the age of fast food and interstate highways. A couple of months ago, I tried looking it up on the Internet Yellow Pages. There was no listing for it, so I tried searching it on Google. I was overjoyed when I found this mention of the Starlite on the McWirter Family website, but sad to learn that the restaurant was gone.”
Loren Donoho married Lola Marie Donoho. He was a veteran and served in the United States Military during the Korean War. He was a member of the Salem American Legion. Loren was Dietetic Supervisor of Scott Air Force Base Hospital Dining Hall for 35 years. They owned and ran the Starlite Restaurant in Salem on Hwy 50 West, near Texas Corner (Selmaville Road). They sold the restaurant in 2005. In 2008, the Starlite was torn down and a new restaurant was built just behind where the original was. It is named Five Brothers.”
Also on the family website was a mention of Stephen Frakes, a friend of the family. I looked him up and found several websites that indicated that he was interested in Salem history. So I called him, and he emailed me a picture of the Starlite, just like that. It gave me goose bumps when I saw it. It looked just as I had remembered. He also told me he knew Dean and Marilyn Wiggins, who owned the restaurant in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So I called them. Marilyn answered the phone, and I told her the story about the hot roast beef with two scoops of mashed. “Oh, yes. That was the Number 5. I was a waitress there when Dean and I owned it.”
She told me that her husband’s parents owned it in the early days, and he bought it from his aunt and uncle in 1968. Not long after, Marilyn sent me several more photos, and I interviewed Dean Wiggins.
Excerpts from interview with Dean Wiggins, conducted on June 26, 2010
“Back in the late ‘30s, we had what was called the oil boom here in Salem. A lot of folks from Texas and Oklahoma came up here. There was a couple whose names were Harry and Margaret Darrow. They moved into a two-story house on Route 50, on the west side of town. They lived upstairs, and the downstairs was Darrow’s Cafe. It was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Back in those days, and even up to the late ‘60s, there were no interstates through our area. Route 50, which runs from Maryland to California, was the main east-west highway through here. There was a lot of truck traffic on it, so they got a lot of business.”
“The Darrows owned it through the ‘40s. Then in 1953, my father and mother, Asa, called Ace, and Leona Wiggins, bought the place from them. I was 13 years old, and my little brother was about eight. We moved to Salem from Odin, a town about four miles west of here. My parents renamed it Wiggins Café. They ran it till about 1959. Then Dad tore down the old place and built the Starlite. There was an old motel next to it called the Starlite Motel, where the Rusty Nail is now. My folks also owned the motel for a while. Our house is just to the east of that spot.”
“It was a family restaurant. Back then, there were no fast food places. My folks ran it till 1963, and then Dad went into the real estate business. Immediately after that, there were a couple of people he put in there to run it. That didn’t work out very well, so he sold it to my mom’s sister and her husband, Mary and Gene Earl, my aunt and uncle. That was about 1964. They ran it for a number of years. In the meantime, I put my time in the Army, and my wife Marilyn and I were married.”
“When I got out of the Army, I was working in Chester, Illinois, right on the Mississippi River, about 90 miles southwest of here. I was a sales rep for the Chester Dairy. I worked for them about six years. I got tired of the job, so we bought the Starlite from the Earls. We had a couple of kids by then. We took over in January of 1968, and ran it till about November of 1972. Then I sold it to Roy and Sue Dye.”
“We were tired. When you run that kind of place, you have to do everything. You wash dishes, you cook, you wait tables, you do the banking, you make the payroll, you clean the restrooms, you wash the windows, you sweep the sidewalks, and you pick up the trash. If you’re gonna make money, by God, you gotta live there. We made good money, but by that time, we had four kids, and had babysitters raising them. We were working 17 or 18 hours a day, every day. It was fun, but we were ready to quit.”
“After we left, Roy and Sue had it for about six or seven years, and they did a good job. But after they sold it, it started to go downhill. It went through a few owners, who were just milking it, to be honest. They didn’t put any money back into it, and they didn’t keep it clean, so it started to fall apart. The last good owner was a fellow named Loren Donoho. He eventually sold it to some kids, but they closed it down after a short time. And then the real estate agency I work for sold it to the Five Brothers, who own it now. After being in there for a year, they tore it down and built the new place. It sits further back off the road.”
“Back in the old days, the Starlite was a pretty nice place for our area. On the east side of the front part of it, Dad installed an accordion door, so he could close off a section of the dining room and have private parties. It was carpeted. On the west side, he had the counter and booths, with a tile floor. That was the style then.”
“It was very popular. We were known for our fried chicken and our steaks and our fish. And we were also known for our home-style meals, like meat loaf, Salisbury steak and spaghetti. There were folks from 50 miles away who would come over and eat there. Friday night was a huge night. This is hard to believe, but back then, you could get half a fried chicken, a huge baked potato, coleslaw and a roll for $1.50. And you could get catfish, about a pound of it, with the same sides, for $1.75. The seating capacity was about 125. The place would be packed, and a line of people would be waiting outside to get in. We had wonderful people working for us, including some great cooks. They were the very best, and we loved them all.”
“Two or three years after my father built the Starlite, there was a fellow named Wayne Robbins, who came to town from Vandalia, Illinois. He built a place on the east side of town, and he had a smorgasbord. He did very well. That was really the only competition that the Starlite had. Wayne and my father were very good friends. In 1976, when my dad was only 58, he had a horrible stroke, and it left him completely paralyzed on his left side. He passed away 10 years later.”
“I guess the Starlite needed to be torn down. It had been let go for so long. It was in pretty sad shape. It took only one day to take it. It kind of hurt to watch. A lot of my family history went with it.”
I told him the fabled story about my two visits to the Starlite, and that I now knew that his aunt and uncle owned it when I made my first visit, and that he and Marilyn owned it on my second visit. I couldn’t resist asking him about the hot roast beef with two scoops of mashed, you know, the Number 5.
“That was the Number 5, alright. We called it the Beef Manhattan. That went way back to my dad and mom, and maybe even the Darrows, when they owned it. If the cooks didn’t mess up, it was probably about all you could eat. We put a pretty good portion out there.”
“I drove by the empty lot
Where the old place used to be,
Parked my car and stood on that spot
And it brought back memories.
I remember how we all cried
When they tore it down that day.
We sure had some good times then,
Down at the old café.”
-from the song “The Old Café,” by Joe Manning and Steve Vozzolo, © 1994