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Saturday, May 16, 2009

A dining experience to remember

By Dick Hirsch

I was on an assignment, staying at a remote crossroads in the Missouri Ozarks. My travel companion was gone until much later, along with our rental car, attending an evening meeting. It was time for dinner. I picked up the room phone and the gal at the registration desk answered.

“How late is the dining room open?” I asked.

“Dining room? she said. “We don’t have any dining room.”

I hadn’t noticed that when we arrived, checked in and hurried off for a quick look at the surroundings. So I couldn’t eat in the motel; I’d have to dine out.

“Where do you recommend for dinner?” I asked. “I don’t have the car so I’ll have to walk to the place.”

There was a long pause. Then it got longer. I thought she must be trying to decide which place to suggest. But I was wrong.

“We don’t have a real restaurant here,” she said. “All we have is Flo & Bill’s. It’s across the road and down a little ways. They serve dinner.”

So that is how I came to dine at Flo & Bill’s and it was my first experience having dinner at a gas station.

Gas stations have changed dramatically over the years. The gas is just one of several products and services available for purchase, and it’s often incidental. No longer is the proprietor often found stooping under a lift, servicing a car. No longer are there helpers and hangers-on, young and old, ready to give directions to motorists unfamiliar with the area. No longer are there guys to change a tire or listen to the sound emitting from a troubled engine and make an immediate diagnosis.

Instead we have attendants who understand how to operate a cash register and deal with credit card sales. They also re-stock the shelves with bread, motor oil, peanuts and flashlight batteries, and make certain the refrigerators are up to capacity with beer, milk and soft drinks.

Flo & Bill’s wasn’t exactly like that. There were four gas pumps out in front, no bay for servicing cars, and a typical inventory of convenience store items. But, in addition it had restaurant features, a counter with four stools and three tables for service. There was a visible griddle and some kettles on the stove. It was there that I would meet some of the locals and have my first meal in the Ozarks.

I think about that dinner occasionally when I see the sophisticated restaurant facilities that have evolved in some gas stations in recent years. The best example I can think of is DeltaSonic, the car wash and gasoline group, which has created attractive and inviting dining operations with diversified menus and quality food and service. Things have changed since my first gas station meal.

I’m not here to critique the Ozark cuisine. The menu had a selection of sandwich items, soft drinks and desserts. There were soup and dinner specials each night, and, after a long day of air travel followed by a 90 minute drive, I felt entitled to go for the top of the line. That evening it was chicken okra soup and either the beef stew or the macaroni and cheese.
“It’s all good,” advised Shirley, who was dividing her time between waitressing the counter and the tables. I was the only table occupant. “Flo makes the best macaroni and cheese I’ve ever had,” Shirley added.

I had been favoring the stew, but that endorsement convinced me to switch. I ordered the soup, the macaroni, and a bottle of Dr Pepper. The soup came with a bag of oyster crackers and the macaroni was accompanied by a bun and a pat of butter. The Dr Pepper was served in a can. The dishes were plastic.

I busied myself reading the house copy of the Fayetteville Observer, published across the state line in nearby Arkansas, but, as you can imagine there was little preparation time involved in ladling out the soup and then dishing out the macaroni. Both the soup and the macaroni were satisfying. I passed on the dessert, but lingered for a few minutes over the Dr Pepper. Shirley introduced me to a guy at one of the stools, and he raved about the trout fishing in the state park a few miles away.

I walked back down the road to the motel thinking that I could recommend Flo & Bill’s if anyone I knew was ever stuck in that part of the world at dinner time.



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