Our parents take us back to the familiar lake cottage year after year; in memory those visits take on mythic status. We revisit again and again a favorite library or bookstore. Businesses like mine rely on “regulars”, another name for returnees, customers who find our products and services rewarding, like at “Cheers”, “where everybody knows your name”. We thrive on the familiar and the comforting. Each family repeats stories about past times. “Ah, those were the days…”
Even “The Lone Ranger” Saturday TV program of the ‘50s got into the action with the narrator’s opening lines, “Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear…”
And General MacArthur did fulfill his promise, “I shall return!”
This is a story about a special place in Upper Arlington, Ohio, a restaurant that’s been around long enough to be revered by thousands of residents and former Upper Arlingtonians.
Return with me now…to the Chef-O-Nette.
I breakfast a couple days a week at the Chef-O-Nette, and have for years.
I’m here this late Monday morning because of late-breaking news delivered here on Saturday by long-time waitress Jeannie. Her missing-for-months colleague Peggy would be back at work today after eight months sick leave. “Tell Peggy hello for me,” Jeannie requested – which confused me for a second, until she continued, “for I’m off that day, and I’m not sure when our shifts will overlap till she’s back on a regular schedule.”
I’d almost forgotten about it. Linda and I had driven downtown this morning to meet with a rep from STRS – State Teachers Retirement System – to discuss the finances of Lin retiring from teaching at Ohio State at 67 instead of 70, which is heady stuff. As we came home past the 60-year-old retail center where the Chef-O-Nette anchors the east end, Lin asked, very thoughtfully, “Would you like me to fix you some ham and eggs before I leave for my meeting over on campus?”
It was then I remembered my intended mission to the ‘Nette. I explained to Lin why her eggs were coming in second this morning to the two I’d get at the Upper Arlington restaurant, two minutes from our house.
Lin and I have a history at the ‘Nette. When we first moved to Columbus from Milwaukee in 1991 we found this local place, opened in 1955, and I’ve been returning ever since. Linda occasionally accompanies me for a poached egg or a delicious waffle (served only on weekdays till 11). Jeannie was our waitress then, and is still the attractive, attentive doyenne of the ‘Nette, welcoming everyone with a smiled, “Hello, sit anywhere you like.”
“Come back again,” she calls to people leaving, and recently I heard one of the guys heading out turn around and say, “We will, as long as you are here!”
Michele – who seems to be there all the time and is terrific with children, and recently-hired and always smiling andCindy are also very welcoming, helping morning diners enjoy the whole Chef-O-Nette experience.
Peggy is the other longtime waitress at this 1950s diner, situated across Tremont Road from the very popular Upper Arlington Library. Also across the street is Tremont Elementary School, whose students flood the Chef-O during their break. The place is very noisy when kids are here, so I try to avoid having breakfast at lunchtime, late-riser that I am. If I am running late, I head five minutes south to Paul’s – Grandview’s version of this eatery, which also features breakfast all day – a prerequisite for a good diner.
Occasionally the elementary school brings a class of kids here on a field trip. If you value quiet, this is not a great time to be there, though it’s clear the kids are having a great time. Fortunately, they don’t come often.
Posted near the register are several enthusiastically thankful letters from youngsters after a field trip that I witnessed: “I learnd some maners and what an awesome Waitress is!” “Thank you for helping me learn how to give a tip and how to order a meal without someone else doing it for you.” “I learned a lot about mony and it was fun.”
This Monday no loud or whining kids were in evidence, though a few accompanied toddlers dotted the tables, booths, and stools. The place was about half-full, folks enjoying an early lunch while I was having a late breakfast.
I walked to the far end of the second bay and around to the kitchen entrance. Peggy was in the kitchen with her head in the salad cooler, pulling an order.
“Hello, Peggy!” She turned to see who had greeted her, smiled widely, and walked into my arms for a big hug. We had never so much as shaken hands before, but her return after illness was a big deal to us regulars.
“I’m so glad to see you back!” I declared, as the two apron-ed men at the sizzling grill turned to the commotion. “We all missed you!”
“Where’s your station?” I asked, and she pointed to my regular corner stool under the red neon “Dining Room” sign at the second counter and said, “I’ve got the bay, as usual.”
As I took off my winter coat and cowboy hat, she came around on the inside of the counter and said, “Do you want your usual?” I had wondered if she’d remember, so I challenged her. “You recall my usual?!”
With her small, light-green order pad held up to write on, she intoned, “Two up?…No,…over easy?”
“Dark dry rye?”
“You remembered it all!”
She smiled with pleasure, and said, “It’ll be right up!”
When she came back with my coffee, I asked her how she was doing.
“Better now, but still a little slow. I’m back to work, but only a bit here at first.”
“How was your summer Florida trip?” Peggy’s the only Ohioan I know who vacations in the Sunshine State in the summer. She has friends down in The Villages.
“I didn’t go,” she replied while setting down glasses of water for a young father and his four- or five-year-old daughter several red-vinyl-ed stools away. After taking their order – “Apple juice and chicken fingers with fries for her and a cheeseburger and fries for me, with pickles only on the cheeseburger”, Peggy turned it in to an ApronMan, then came back, coffee-pot in hand.
“I never did make it down South,” she said while pouring more coffee for a older guy across the counter who was reading Stuart Woods’ “Santa Fe Dead”, holding it up very close to his face. She turned back to me, topped off my own cup, and continued. “I went into the hospital for minor surgery in June and didn’t get back home until November.”
Wow. I never knew she was that ill.
“I would have sent you a card or two if I’d known you were in the medical system that long.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she said, then ducked back into the kitchen. She seemed pleased that I greeted her as enthusiastically as I did, and drew her usual happy face on the back of my ticket.
I had watched the father and daughter interact at the end stools of the bay. After they ate, she brought out paper and pencil, not an electronic device. (An amazing 50% of children aged 3-8 had electronic tablets on their Santa list this past Christmas!) He was encouraging her in a soft voice with words and letters. These two obviously enjoyed being with one another; she seemed happy to be learning from her father, frequently looking up for his sincere, approving, “That’s really good!”
As they went to leave, I leaned down the counter and complimented him. “You’re very good with her,” I said. “You are both encouraging and patient, and it’s obvious that she responds well.”
“Yeah, this is our weekly trip to the Chef-O-Nette, and we both enjoy it, don’t we?” he said to the girl, thoughtfully including her in his grown-up conversation. She nodded and smiled at me, not giggly and shy as so many girls her age. As he held her small, bright-white winter coat for her, he said proudly, “I was brought here by my parents when I was her age, and went to school right there,” pointing to Tremont Elementary across the street. “Just like she does.”
“So that makes her a third generation Chef-O-Netter!” I said.
“Yep, and I hope that she comes back here with her children. It’s part of our family’s history.”
A week later, as I was telling their story to good friends Ron Shaull and his grown son Aaron, Ron exclaimed, “I used to do that with Aaron! I used to meet him each Tuesday.”
“Yeah,” Aaron agreed, “you had to provide a written note to let them know I was leaving with a responsible adult!”
The Chef-O-Nette is a special place that has achieved heritage status in Arlington, our tony suburb of Columbus. The food is good, the prices decent, the service pleasant and efficient.
Harlan Howard and his father before him have managed to keep this place open in tough times; Upper Arlingtonians and others have responded and supported this eatery for nearly 60 years. People are proud to bring their children where Grandma and Grandad used to bring them.
The ‘Nette hasn’t changed much in décor or menu. The following is a recent picture and the way they promote themselves on their website:
How about an old-fashion fountain featuring cherry, chocolate or vanilla cokes; or a hot-fudge sundae; or homemade tapioca pudding or a cherry cobbler?
Today the lunch special featured pork chops with a side of Jell-O or a fried baloney sandwich – as it may well have been when the Eisenhowers were in the White House, and all the large cars in the parking lot sported soaring tail-fins. The background music is either Golden Oldies or Classic Rock, played at a very low volume.
What matters most to some people is that it’s still here. The décor and menu are secondary to them – though I do overhear many ordering the classic Chef-O-Burger or the Hangover Special. Many remember their own childhood visits.
Come in on an autumn Saturday morning and you’ll find the place abuzz in a huddle of scarlet and gray, everyone pumped for the OSU Buckeyes’ football game. In wealthy, white, and Republican Upper Arlington, from young toddlers to walker-toddlers, and everyone in between, Gameday means Chef-O-Nette day.
Visit any evening and you won’t find anyone without gray hair – unless grandchildren have been brought along or those AARPS have been dipping into the coloring gel. They’re having the early bird dinners, the evening’s just-printed specials clipped to the regular laminated menu.
The place closes at 8, isn’t open on Sundays, and doesn’t have a liquor license.
In a world that seems to change day-by-day, creating uncertainties and anxieties about personal, family, and community stability, places like the Chef-o-Nette endure and beckon, generation after generation. It’s a place of sanctuary, comfortable in its known-ness.
Harlan told me that they had a pretty good December, and that’s great news. I want that little girl to be able to return to the Chef-O-Nette as a mother, to be sitting at this counter with her daughter, a 4th-generation Chef-O-Netter, helping her to read.
Peggy works her way off a sickbed and returns to serve the regulars, who welcome her back to where she and they feel she belongs.
Multi-generation families and long-time folks like me return to a place of local history which still functions as an enjoyable diner.
It’s not just the welcoming service, unchanged ambience, and daily specials which cause us to return. It’s also the quiet celebration of participating in that stream of history – which has waitresses pouring bottomless cups of great coffee, served with a smile and an “Anything else, sweetheart?”