May 042011

Before Interstate 40 pulled tourists and businesses away from downtowns across northern Arizona, the “Mother Road” was the main route for travelers headed from Chicago to California.

Dozens of hotels, tchotchke shops and, of course, restaurants popped up to serve them. A few still survive.

1. Grand Canyon Cafe, Flagstaff, 1941

Even though Grand Canyon Cafe offers a full slate of American and Chinese dishes, customers walking in after dark may find it hard to resist ordering the chop suey. That’s what the neon sign encourages. The words “Chop Suey” glow at the bottom of a big, curved, lighted arrow that lures diners inside.

The Grand Canyon Cafe is swaddled in an ethereal wreath of neon, a beautiful display. For connoisseurs of such places, neon is gospel.

The Grand Canyon Cafe has been in the Wong family since 1947. Fred Wong started working there as a kid, eventually buying it from his father and uncles in 1980. The classic look of the counter-and-booths interior, combined with a homey clutter of creaking shelves and an arboretum’s worth of house plants, has made the cafe a popular venue for filmmakers.

Most recently, the BBC shot scenes here for a movie called “Nuclear Race,” and country music star Rodney Crowell filmed a music video.

Details: 110 E. Route 66. 928-774-2252.

2. Joe & Aggie’s Cafe, Holbrook, 1943

No one ever gets lost at Joe & Aggie’s Cafe because there’s a giant map painted on the side of the building and, on it, a big star marking the spot for Holbrook.

The mural of Route 66, and the nearby Wigwam Motel, have become popular photo ops for travelers of the historic highway,. The small eatery was opened in 1943 by Tom Smithson, who called it the Cactus Cafe.

Joe and Aggie Montano bought the joint in 1945; it has been in the family ever since, dishing up a blend of Mexican and American cuisine. The chiles rellenos are menu standouts.

Cases and shelves of Route 66 souvenirs fill the front of the restaurant. The connection with the Mother Road remains strong as more and more people seek out the small-town experience away from the cookie-cutter sameness of interstate off-ramps.

Joe & Aggie’s Cafe is thanked in the credits of the Pixar movie “Cars” as one of the inspirations along Route 66.

Details: 120 W. Hopi Drive. 866-486-0021,

3. Rod’s Steak House, Williams, 1946

Anytime you see a neon-lit steer on the roof of a restaurant, it’s a pretty safe bet that tofu isn’t on the menu.

While Rodney Graves was running a tavern in Williams before World War II, he had a notion that a steakhouse might do well in the little burg. How right he was.

In 1946, he opened Rod’s Steak House on Route 66. In the postwar boom, Americans streamed West on the Mother Road, and it seemed no one could resist a cow on the roof.

Lawrence and Stella Sanchez purchased Rod’s Steak House in 1985. Lawrence had washed dishes at Rod’s as a teenager and then returned to work as manager and head chef. Aware of the steak house’s storied history, Lawrence and Stella have made some updates. But the steer-shaped menu – now a registered trademark – is the same one Rod used to open the eatery.

Many of the same recipes are used, including Rod’s Special, a sugar-dipped charred steak.

Details: 301 E. Route 66. 928-635-2671,

4. Miz Zip’s, Flagstaff, 1952

“Easy as pie” is one of the most perplexing idioms of the English language.

There’s nothing easy about preparing pie. Maybe that’s what makes homemade pie with a flaky crust and rich flavors so memorable and what has kept customers flocking to Miz Zip’s for all these decades.

The little Route 66 diner opened in 1952. By 1964, it was a popular truck stop, and a girl named Judy, fresh out of high school, started working there. It’s where she met, and eventually married, the owner’s son, Craig Leonard.

Craig and Judy bought Miz Zip’s in 1991 and continued the diner’s tasty traditions, such as butchering their own meat and making everything from scratch, including those luscious pies.

Colleen Schutte was the pie maker for Miz Zip’s for 36 years. When she retired in the mid-’90s, Judy Leonard took over the job, producing about a dozen each day.

Details: 2924 E. Route 66. 928-526-0104.

5. Snow Cap Drive-In, Seligman, 1953

Juan Delgadillo built the Snow Cap Drive-In from scrap lumber he gathered while working for the railroad.

The little place opened in 1953 and quickly earned a wacky reputation because of Juan’s interaction with the customers. Juan’s freewheeling gags – like “accidentally” squirting patrons with mustard that was actually colored string and offering comically undersize and oversize servings – delighted families for decades.

When Interstate 40 opened, Route 66 was decommissioned. Seligman, like many towns suddenly bypassed by the flow of traffic, struggled to survive. In 1987, Juan, his brother Angel and other local business owners formed the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona.

They lobbied the state to designate Route 66 a historic highway. Within months, the state had agreed and began posting promotional signage. Soon, organizations sprang up in other states, and a wave of Route 66 nostalgia was under way.

Today, Seligman is regarded as the birthplace of Historic Route 66, and the Snow Cap has become a mecca for those traveling the Mother Road.

Juan Delgadillo died in 2004, but the same off-kilter humor is carried on by his kids. And just because the Delgadillos are quick with a gag doesn’t mean they don’t know how to cook. The juicy burgers stack up against any in the state.

Details: 301 E. Route 66. 928-422-3291.

Roger Naylor – The Republic

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