Longtime patron Marcia White, left, hugs waitress Donna Wells at The Griddle on Lancaster Avenue as the diner ends 50 years of business Sunday. Jim Eichelberger, operator of the breakfast and lunch cafe, decided to retire.
No secret sauce for area diner's 'last order out'
By Bud Kennedy
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
The shout from the short-order cook echoed throughout the old Griddle diner Sunday afternoon.
"Last order out!" Eric Hendon barked, slapping two cheeseburger platters onto the counter and sadly ending a Texas tradition of 66 years.
A sister, Jennifer Aldridge, whisked the last Griddle burgers out to the tiny dining room. Another cook, Gary Havard, dabbed away tears.
"This is the last of the originals," said Havard, 52, naming old North Texas diners of bygone days. "No more Rockyfellers. No more Pig Stands. Now, no more Griddle. I'm heartbroken."
The last order out Sunday was the last order forever at the last Griddle System, No. 12, on Lancaster Avenue, ending an era of hamburger diners where customers gathered to share life as they ate short-order breakfasts and burgers off real plates, not out of paper sacks passed impersonally out a window.
Disappointingly, the last order was for burgers with mustard, not with Griddle sauce. That's the mustard-ketchup-dill-relish sauce that carried the chain to success at 12 locations across Fort Worth and Dallas in the 1940s and '50s. Griddle No. 12 was the last to open, in 1954.
The secret recipe for Griddle sauce went undisclosed Sunday.
"I'd better not say," Aldridge said, looking around nervously.
"I know what's in it -- but I'm not sayin'," said Lacy Hunsuckle, 18. Her grandfather, Jim Eichelberger, was the last operator, closing a restaurant chain where he has worked or managed locations since 1949.
At the door, a hand-scrawled sign read:
Lg. Chburger = Special $4.50 \ Tx = Goodbye to all our Great Customers
"This place has been my whole life," Hunsuckle said. "Young people don't understand the meaning of places like this."
A black-and-white photo on the wall showed a twentyish Eichelberger at the counter. Now 75, he rattled off the addresses of all 12 Griddles from memory: "No. 1 was on Magnolia [Avenue]. No. 2, that was on Vaughn [Boulevard.] No. 3, that was in Dallas. ..."
No. 12 is closing because "I'm just wore out," he said. "I think it's time to quit after 55 years."
In one of the six front booths -- not counting the "new" dining room, which replaced the drive-up carhop lanes years ago -- retirees Jane and Sam McCoy were digging into late pancake breakfasts.
"This place has never changed," Jane McCoy said sadly.
Sam McCoy, 80 and retired from American Airlines, looked up.
"That's his problem!" he said.
Jane McCoy said she came because she loved the food and the people, particularly the servers, some of them women who had worked there 20 or more years.
"You always get your order exactly the way you wanted," she said. "That's not like other restaurants."
But the Griddle dining room looked timeworn.
The '70s album covers lining the walls -- Aerosmith, Bad Company, Kiss -- were fading. The air conditioning never worked very well, even before somebody stole the air conditioner.
New restaurant chains manufacture nostalgia to create fake diners that look like the Griddle. But they do it in places like Mansfield or Southlake, not in aging neighborhoods like along Lancaster Avenue, once part of a historic highway spanning America.
Elspeth White is the Griddle's artist-in-residence. She does pencil sketches of regular customers, drinking coffee at one of the 11 chrome stools or draped sleepily in a red-vinyl booth.
"This is so sad for all these people," she said, showing a sketch of a regular who had passed away. "All their friends are here. Now, they don't have anywhere to go."
Bill Brown, 86, sat in an empty booth and stared out the window. He doesn't say much to anybody. But for years, he has lingered almost every day, drifting in and out of the diner.
"Don't know where I'll go now," he said, looking down and slowly shaking his head under a gray wool golf cap.
Then he looked up. "You know anyplace that serves breakfast?"
Yeah, plenty. But not anyplace like a Griddle.