Over a decade ago, before my son was born and when my daughter was still in diapers, Shoney’s somehow became the restaurant where we ate most often, even though it was no one’s very favorite. The main thing it had going for it was that no one much cared whether my daughter built castles fashioned from artificial sweetener packets on the table, or dropped her sippy cup 12 times in half an hour, or smeared peas on her high chair. Once in a while, we would have awkward moments in other restaurants as some less tolerant diners cast steely glances at us now and then when our daughter acted her age and not like the 2-year-old adult they imagined she should be. But in Shoney’s, we felt comfortable, and welcome. And we liked their potato soup and hot fudge cakes.
After my son was born, we relied on Shoney’s even more, not just as a “safe haven” for the unpredictable behavior of children in restaurants, but as our default source of sustenance whenever mom or dad were just too exhausted or too busy to make dinner … or breakfast. Many was the morning that we loaded up and headed to Shoney’s to graze from the breakfast bar while bleary-eyed daddy, trying to function on five hours of sleep at best, consumed approximately 45 cups of coffee in a single hour while the kids colored or invented exciting new games with tiny cubes of cantaloupe and honey dew melon.
As the kids grew ever older, we found that our trips to Shoney’s were not quite so frequent as they once had been — though we were virtually certain to hit the breakfast bar twice per month — but we also found that Shoney’s became a place for us to celebrate certain milestones. There was a birthday dinner or two in there, but mostly the milestones were connected to certain specific accomplishments.
We will certainly never forget my daughter’s acting debut when she was 10 years old. She played a sassy girl named Alice in a local production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and she just nailed it, if you want the absolute truth instead of false humility.
We decide to celebrate, of course, with a round of hot fudge cakes for the family and her best friend, Rose, but on the way out of the theater, her grandmother fell and injured her arm. My wife accompanied her to the emergency room and insisted that I take my daughter, her friend and my son on to Shoney’s, where we would eat our hot fudge cakes while I did my best to keep the focus on her performance, while reassuring her that her grandma would be OK. Every ten minutes or so, I slipped outside to call and check on grandma while watching the kids through the big plate glass windows gouging away at their desserts as my daughter reenacted certain key scenes from the play.
If my son’s little league team won a big game, we were off to Shoney’s. If someone did well on a report card, or got a certificate at camp, or worked hard all day in the yard, or finally learned to master that bicycle without training wheels, we went to Shoney’s.
When we heard a few months ago that the Shoney’s would be closing, we knew then that it would represent something to us that we could not quite express. The months passed, and we saw the demolition of the motel across the street, then David’s Home Entertainment store and the closing of Taco Bell. Finally, word came of the closing date for Shoney’s — Feb. 6.
So on Saturday night, we packed up one last time — this time with the camera — and we headed to Shoney’s. We parked and took turns making pictures of each other in front of it, so that the big red neon sign glowed over our heads. Then we went in and had our server make a picture of us at our table before a nice lady in the adjacent booth offered to take over, explaining that she had some experience as a photographer and would be delighted to help.
We ate our potato soup, our meals and our hot fudge cakes. My wife made a picture of those as well. My son, who will be 9 years old in three weeks, colored the Shoney’s bear with purple and red crayons, and then we found the words in the puzzle and figured a way out of the maze. We had our usual tug of war over spending money on the crane game, paid the bill, and made our way back out into the night air, a little chillier now.
“Well, that’s that,” I said, because what else could I say? If I tell my kids that they’ll be sentimental about a Shoney’s 30 years from now, they’d probably just laugh and accuse me of being delusional.