Route 66 sign
Route 66: History, Myth and Memory

Allen Stoll's Project

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Corner of 7th & Chouteau Ave.  City 66 crossed the Mississippi River on the McArthur Bridge exiting onto Chouteau Ave. near the Eat-Rite diner before heading west through St. Louis.
 

Eat-Rite diner’s interior continues to reflect the typical lunch counter arrangement.

 
Close-up of Tiffany’s widow sign
 
Exterior of Tiffany’s Diner located at 7402 Manchester Road
 

Portion of menu from Tiffany’s Diner.  Printed menus cost money, prompting owners to post the menu and prices on signboards above the counter.

 

Spencer’s Grill and Restaurant downtown Kirkwood, Missouri

 
 Interior of Spencer’s Grill and Restaurant
 
Monroe’s Diner in Pacific, Missouri
 
 Zephyr Station and Café near Villa Ridge, Missouri
 

Red Cedar Inn Restaurant near Pacific, Missouri

 

Diamonds Restaurant c 1950s near Villa Ridge, Missouri.  Courtesy of Newmexkans Postcards and Stuff.

 
Vintage postcard from 1930s showing interior of original Diamonds Restaurant. Courtesy of Melanie Simmons
 

Tri-County Truck Stop c. 2003.  Courtesy of Kenneth Koehler

 

FuelMart Truck Stop and Gas Station located near the on/off ramps to Interstate 44 at Exit 251

 
 
View of Tri-County Truck Stop (Diamonds Restaurant) from the parking lot of the FuelMart Truck Stop near Villa Ridge
 


I'm Hungry-Let's Eat!:
Diners of Route 66 in Eastern Missouri

The completion of Route 66 rekindled a sense of Manifest Destiny in Americans as they journeyed westward rediscovering themselves and America.  But this time instead of settlers and immigrants traveling west by horse and wagon.  The 20th century pioneer traveled in relative comfort courtesy of Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors.  Although this mode of travel was considerably easier cars and trucks still needed gas and their occupants needed to eat.  Ambitious entrepreneurs took advantage of this human need establishing diners and restaurants along Route 66 to feed the weary business travelers, vacationers and truck drivers.  The diners and restaurants doting the sides of the roadway ranged from small simple cinder-block buildings, converted grocery stores on downtown main streets, quaincent sheds, and theme restaurants.  But the Interstate Highway Act signed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 doomed both of these American icons.  After a century and a half of service in Missouri Route 66 was completely by-passed or paved over by Interstate 44.  As The Main Street of America passed into history, so have many of the quaint little diners found so frequently along her shoulders.  So how has the construction of Interstate 44 affected the economic landscape of diners and restaurants in Eastern Missouri?  Let’s take a look.

Small city diners like Eat-Rite and Tiffany’s were located in urban industrial centers, retail districts, and downtown main streets.  Instead of booths and tables, these diners contained a single lunch counter with a cluster of floor mounted stools on one side, and a grill immediately on the other side of the counter making it a one person operation.  The menus were limited to quick, inexpensive food that could be prepared quickly for patrons operating on tight lunch schedules.  Most lunch counter diners were open 24 hours to accommodate the various shifts of local factories. 

Eat-Rite Resturant
Corner of 7th & Chouteau Ave.  City 66 crossed the Mississippi River on the McArthur Bridge exiting onto Chouteau Ave. near the Eat-Rite diner before heading west through St. Louis.


      


     

Opened in the 1940s the Eat-Rite diner catered to the working-class men of nearby warehouses, downtown business, and the Missouri Pacific rail yards (ratpackstlouis 2008).  Located at a crucial intersection where City 66 exited onto Chouteau Avenue after crossing the Mississippi River, the diner established a niche for itself along a vital artery into St. Louis.  Over the next couple of decades the 24 hours diner served meals to thousands of hungry workers like Robert Stoll who, after completing his midnight shift at the Nooter Corporation would stop at the diner to get breakfast before heading home to Columbia, Illinois (Stoll 2008).  Although the building of Interstates 64/40, 44, and 55 have impacted the urban landscape of downtown St. Louis it hasn’t impacted the business of the Eat-Rite diner.  Walk into the diner on any given day or night and you will find the cook hard at work serving working men and women as well as late night partiers of the nearby Soulard club scene.
      

Tiffany’s diner, located on Manchester Road (Rt. 100), once the truck route for Route 66 through the City, continues to thrive as a 24 hour diner in Maplewood, Missouri.  Tucked away in one half of a small main street building the little diner can be easily overlooked by an unfamiliar visitor, although the regulars and locals know exactly where to find the diner.  This little diner, rated the best lunch counter in 2004 by the Riverfront Times, creates an atmosphere nostalgic of the Route 66 era (River Front Times 2004).  Serving classic diner food at inexpensive prices Tiffany’s attracts a wide range of customers, from the loyal locals to travelers looking for something unmistakably different from other restaurants in Maplewood.  I visited Tiffany’s in the middle of a weekday afternoon finding only two locals bellied up to the counter, but was told “Good Luck!” finding an empty seat at 3:00am on a Saturday or Sunday morning when the bars and clubs start closing.
      

Spencer’s Grill and Restaurant in Kirkwood, Missouri provides an example of how diners along Route 66, and all over the U.S., changed after World War II.  Opened in 1947, Bill Spencer converted a grocery store into a diner with the traditional lunch counter arrangement.  Spencer’s Grill was still a 24 hour establishment offering a limited menu, but now provided booth seating for the growing trend of families dining out.  Reopened by Chris Powers in 2003, Spencer’s Grill and Restaurant looks much as it did half a century ago.  A Kirkwood icon, Spencer’s Grill continues to serve up good food, though not 24 hours.  Mr. Powers recently commented he receives thankful comments from locals for saving the restaurant from a fateful demise, crediting the restaurants thriving success to his loyal local customer base who know where they can go to get great home cooked food in a nostalgic diner atmosphere (Powers 2008). 
      

Although the building of Interstates 64/40, 44, and 55 have altered the urban landscape carving out concrete speedways allowing travelers to by-pass the cramped city streets and stoplights.  Diners like Eat-Rite, Tiffany’s, Spencer’s Grill and Restaurant, and many more like them, have a huge threshold of local customers and travelers to keep them busy.  So in retrospect, the economic landscape surrounding the nostalgic neighborhood diners located in St. Louis have not been critically affected by the Interstates.
      

Southwest of St. Louis parallel to Interstate 44 is Missouri Route 100.  This is actually a renumbered stretch of old Route 66.  Traveling between Eureka and Villa Ridge one readily sees the stark reminders of how the Interstate changed the economy of this rural landscape.  Along this highway the traveler finds small diners like Monroe’s Diner and the Zephyr Station and Café. 

But, this stretch will also bring the traveler face to face with legendary restaurants like the Red Cedar Inn and the Diamonds Restaurant.  Unfortunately all of these diners are closed, up for sale, and/or slowly deteriorating away; leaving only a memory in the minds of those who once frequented the establishments.  While all the diners along this stretch of Route 66 contributed in some way to the history of the highway and the local community.  Legendary diners like the Red Cedar Inn and the Diamonds Restaurant typify the nostalgia surrounding Route 66.
      

The Red Cedar Inn is touted as a Route 66 landmark.  This family owned and operated restaurant served a diverse crowd of patrons for over half a century.  Starting out as a typical rural restaurant and service station, the Red Cedar Inn adjusted with the changing decades.  When the restaurant recently closed they offered mix drinks and live music in addition to their traditional home-style food.  Although the gasoline pumps are gone and the restaurant is currently up for sale, the nostalgia of the Red Cedar Inn continues to conjure up memories from past patrons that mythologize the little historic landmark along the most recognized highway in America (Karna 2008). 
      

Serving customers since the first decade of Route 66 the Diamonds Restaurant was not your ordinary diner.  Located in a rural setting between Grey Summit and Villa Ridge the restaurant was advertised as the “World’s Largest Roadside Restaurant.”  Inside the diamond shaped building a customer would find table seating and three U-shaped lunch counters each with its own attendant.  In addition the Diamonds offered service station amenities, sold gasoline, rented 25 cabins for weary travelers, and served as a way station for cross-country bus service (Weiser 2008).  The restaurant’s menu included a full range of foods from quick hamburgers to open-face roast beef diner plates.  Eventually by-passed by Interstate 44 in the late 60s, the owners moved to an intersection near Grey Summit.  Today all that remains of the second Diamonds restaurant is an empty lot and the foundation of the razed building.  The Tri-County Truck Stop later took over the original Diamonds and operated until sometime after 2003.  Currently the weathered building is used for storage.
      

Out along the rural section of old Route 66 the economic impact of the Interstate is clearly observed.  The combination of highway traffic by-passing the diners, decreasing revenue from the lack of new customers, and economic slumps kept many from making the profit needed to survive.  Additionally the rural diners had to compete with modern truck stops and fast food restaurants clustered around Interstate 44s intersections and on/off ramps.  Unlike the diners in the city, the rural diners don’t have a massive population to continually support them.  The Diamonds Restaurant/Tri-County Truck Stop is a good case in point.  Just off of Interstate 44 at exit 251 is a cluster of large gas stations, truck stops, and fast food restaurants catering to the necessities of the fast paced culture of a car obsessed public. 
      

Route 66 essentially reopened the country west of the Mississippi River to a new era of discovery and travel.  The stories and memories of travel and adventure revolving around little corner lunch counter diners and quaint rural restaurants contribute to the historic highway’s impression on our popular culture.  When we look back on our memories we are inclined to remember the good and forget the bad.  Those memories, and, the history, associated with Route 66 have helped to mythologize the highway by capturing the imagination of the public.  The mythologizing of Route 66’s history, and the non-fictional and fictional stories associated with the highway within our popular culture ensures that “The Mother Road of America” and its contribution to local communities will never be forgotten.   


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