Highway Cafés: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

In the 1940s, Hwy. 65 was re-routed away from downtown. Its new path followed Harkrider Street through Conway before it continued northward through Greenbrier to Damascus.

Hwy. 64, coming from the east, merged with Hwy. 65, coming from the south, at Oak and Harkrider and then split again at what locals called the “Y” with 64 going west and 65 continuing north. The “Y” is still evident in front of Wal-Mart Supercenter.

The development of this new thoroughfare and the rise of the automobile led to new industries like gas stations and motels or tourist courts along this section of highway. Many of the cafés that opened on Harkrider during this time were associated with either a gas station or a motel.

In 1941, American Grill opened with a Gulf station in the new John Silaz building at the corner of Oak and Harkrider. The rooms were handsomely finished in tile. The modern café was air-conditioned and lighted with fluorescent fixtures. The grill was operated by Joe Elcan, former traveling wholesale drug representative. Armour Carter was Mr. Elcan’s chief assistant. When it opened, the establishment announced it would cater to local as well as tourist business.

A year later, the café outgrew its space and moved across Harkrider to the Hiegel building where it would have a private dining room for banquets and large gatherings. It was a popular location for group meetings.

When World War II began, Joe Elcan reported to the navy and his wife, Christine, continued to run the café in his absence. After the war, Elcan sold the café to Joe Rossi of Center Ridge. In the early 1960s, Phil Pinter opened the Host Drive-in at this location.

The Southern Café also opened in 1941 next to Cole’s Esso station on the east side of Harkrider one block north of Oak. It offered curb service and had a soda fountain. Walter and Opal Dunaway bought the property two years later but Johnny DeSalvo owned the café until he sold it to Fern and Beulah Moore in 1949.

By 1952, the café was renamed Burk’s Southern Grill. It was owned by Dorothy Burks, whose husband ran a bus service to Little Rock. It was a popular spot for ladies to gather for lunch after bowling league. Unfortunately, the café burned in late 1965.

There was also a Victory Café at Oak and Harkrider. Located in the Gulf Oil Co. building, it was operated by E.B. Beacham until he sold it to Rocky DeSalvo in 1953. Roy Gant, owner of the Chicken Shack, south of Conway, bought the café from Paul Harrison in 1955 and opened Gant’s Steakhouse.

Johnny DeSalvo and his wife, former owners of the American Café, bought Doc’s Grill, located on the west side of Harkrider, in 1951 and renamed it Johnny DeSalvo’s Fine Foods after remodeling the space. DeSalvo’s offered curb service and had a “Red Room” for banquets. DeSalvo sold the café to Joe and Anthony J. “Sonny” Paladino in 1955 due to health issues. They renamed it Paladino’s Restaurant. The café stood where O’Reilly Auto Parts is today.

There were also new cafes opened near the “Y”, the junction of Highway 64 and 65. The 64/65 Motel and Café was located about where the Wal-Mart Supercenter entrance is today. The restaurant sat in front of the U-shaped motel that had nine units. In the mid-1940s, Tommy and Joe Paladino operated it as Paladino’s 64-65 but then each moved on to run other cafes. Joe took over the Palace Café on Front Street while Tommy opened Tommy’s Restaurant across Harkrider.

In 1950, W.B. Smith sold the 64/65 Motel and Café to Ed Strentz. Vic Paladino ran the 64-65 Café for a while then Bob Green took over the management of the café in 1958. Bob introduced his popular homemade pizza during the decade he managed the café. He then moved on to start Bob’s Grill.

These are just some of the notable cafes that developed along Highway 64 and 65. Tommy’s was a story by itself and so is Clawson Truck Stop. Clawson’s opened in 1963 and served up memorable food until 1994. That story will have to be told another time.