Several weeks ago I got a call from a guy in California. He told me he was a Youngstown State grad, and was planning a reunion in Las Vegas for his YSU Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and those brothers who attended Youngstown University in the mid 1960’s. On his reunion website he had a page to post pictures of Youngstown memorabilia from that interesting era.
While looking for pictures he came across my Youngstown Eats blog. He asked if I could help locate pictures of the Twentieth Century Restaurant that used to be at the point on Belmont Avenue. For those of you who don’t know, the northside of Youngstown had a large Jewish population. The Twentieth Century Restaurant was about as close to a New York deli as one might find in the area. The ZBT’s were the Jewish fraternity on campus wrapping everything up in a nice package. Coincidentally, my cousin was a ZBT when he went to "Youngstown University" and turned out to be good friends with Howard, the guy from California. No...I am not Jewish. I am Catholic and so is my cousin, ZBT's token Gentile!!
Through some effort and some information given to me by my good friend Suzyn, I was able to point him in the direction of the family of the original owners who now live in Columbus. The pictures arrived in California last week, along with some of the restaurant recipes.
Over the course of the search and many phone conversations, I got to know Howard. There was much conversation reminiscing about old Youngstown restaurants. It was fun to do the Memory Lane thing, and revisit some of them in my mind. It also served to remind me of many of the events, good and bad, that shaped me, my family, and the Youngstown area.
There were very few, if any chains, back in the day. My earliest experience in dining took place at the Hotel Pick Ohio in the Crystal Dining Room. It was worthy of New York with its stiff white table cloths and crystal chandeliers off the hotel lobby which itself was dominated by a beautiful, massive mural. Now part of the Youngstown Housing Authority the lobby mural is still there.
Other downtown establishments included the Mural Room. You walked in the door and down some steps into a fantastic space. My senior prom was held there, as well as a number of college events when I was attending YSU. Both Strouss and McKelvey’s had terrific department store restaurants. Strouss had the Western Reserve Room, where I had lunch many times up until it stopped being Strouss and became something else. The Strouss Grill on the first floor behind the bakery (large pecan rolls and those little marmalade sticky rolls) was also a great place for lunch. Great chicken croquettes and the best hamburgers I ever had. Then there was Lum’s in the old bus arcade! We used to walk down there from the university for a hot dog. Honorable mention goes to The Italian Restaurant (the 75 year old waitress could carry 12 plates of food and kick the revolving door with her foot) and the Hasti House with wonderful pies.
Going south on Market Street you hit the uptown restaurants. The most famous was the original Antone’s and its Confetti Lounge. This is where I took a girl to impress her with such exotic dishes as fried cheese and veal francaise, and of course the famous Antone’s salad. Further south was Cicero’s. I never ate there, but it was swank and a mob hangout. It was also the site of several car bombings. You could lose track of the body count. Across the street was the Mansion. It was done in red leather and black velvet. They don’t make them like that anymore. And across from that was the Colonial House…where the elite met. It was THE hangout, with regular patrons getting their regular tables. You had drive through a very narrow carport to get to the parking lot in the rear. I only scraped the side of my folks car once. The building is still there, empty and decaying.
Keep driving south on Market Street you would hit the Golden Drumstick and its fried chicken and biscuits and honey. It was the sister restaurant to the Twentieth Century done in that distinct 1950's architecture. Even further south was Howard Johnson’s…HJ’s…where my high school friends and I hung out, and my folks would take us for Sunday dinner, clam boat and all. It was here that I first learned that steak with salt tastes better than steak without salt.
Two more southside restaurants figure prominently in the history of Youngstown food. Shot’s restaurant was located near Boardman Methodist Church. I used to meet my father and his friends there for lunch several times a week up until the place closed around 1980. And finally…Morgan’s Wonder Boy…the triple decker hamburger place with the twirling outside statue holding a burger and all of the drive up stalls to hang out on Friday night. It also served a new kind of chicken, something called Col. Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken. The corner morphed into a Circuit City and now a CVS Pharmacy.
People who lived in Youngstown southern suburbs were "holier than thou" tucked away in their dry townships. On the weekend they headed to the strip in Niles to let their hair down. The premier restaurant was the Living Room, which was actually a supper club with big name entertainment. It had several levels, and was the place to go. I took dates their several times…and was so shook up by the wheelers and dealers patronizing the joint I couldn’t have a good time.
Other strip names included Alberini’s now closed. The Café 422 is still operating under different management and one of my most favorite places to go. (It has opened up a second restaurant in Boardman). Then there was Cherry’s Top of the Mall in the Eastwood Mall. I never went there, but lots of interesting people did. The El Rio was a favorite of my college friends with a HUGE menu. And down towards Warren was the Girves Brown Derby…one of the original steak houses in the area and part of an early restaurant chain. It was great. Loved to slurp the onion rings around in the steak juice!!
All of these places on the Niles/Warren 422 corridor were provided patrons by the Kenley Players in the summer located in the Packard Music Hall. Big names would come to the area for a new summer stock play every week for 12 weeks. I don’t know how John Kenley did it, but he did. Starting in Warren, he expanded to Akron and Columbus. He was a legend. Unfortunately, when he went belly up, so did a lot of the restaurants.
Which brings us full circle back to the Twentieth Century, one of my most favorite Youngstown restaurants!! Here is where I learned to eat Reuben sandwiches and the famous and infamous Spinning Bowl salad. They would bring the ingredients right out to the table like an old style Caesar Salad making it right in front of you! Add a couple of their sticky buns and you were good for the evening…except save room for some of its chocolate pie. I never had another like it anywhere.
Talking to Howard about these culinary gems made it seem like such a long time ago. It wasn’t. Almost all were still up and running in the mid 1970’s, many still operating through the mid 1980’s when the mills finally shut down and chains took over. It was the double whammy for sole proprietor restaurateurs. Although this area still continues its long history of good eating…sometimes I get lost in the nostalgia, and I think about the Twentieth Century as I drive past the now vacant lot at the point on Belmont Avenue. Such is the passage of time.