I did not really need another reminder that nothing in our physical world remains the same forever. But I got one when I received a text from my stepmom that Balyeat’s Coffee Shop in downtown Van Wert, Ohio is closing next month.
Before we go any further, let’s clear up one thing: I am not a local. But I have been an occasional visitor since the late 1960s, so I think that I have the right to be a little saddened by the news. If you have a moment or two, please allow me to explain why.
Van Wert is a small county-seat city in northwest Ohio. After my father remarried, he lived at the ragged edge of Van Wert County, which abuts Indiana’s eastern border just a touch southeast of Fort Wayne. From that time on, Balyeat’s was always a reliable dining option.
I think that the interior decor was probably pretty current when I started going there around the age of ten. As a car nut, I was always fascinated by the massive Chrysler Airtemp HVAC system built into the back wall of the place, but other than that, it didn’t seem very out of the ordinary to me. Wasn’t one small-town hash house pretty much like any other?
For years and years, whenever I would go back to visit, Balyeat’s (pronounced Bal-yitz – with a short “a”, as in “apple”) always seemed like the go-to place, or at least one of them. Nothing special, just a little small-town place that served good food and even better pies, and that featured the ever-present Dale behind the counter with his clean white shirt and black bow tie.
As time went on, I went less frequently. After college and law school, I stayed in Indianapolis, a place with a dining scene quite a bit different from that of Van Wert. As a young adult, I sampled many a restaurant where huge plates were heaped with tasty food. But those giant portions of big city food also came with big city prices which, when you live in the big city, you get used to.
At some point, probably after my kids had been weaned from the kiddie menus, it hit me that there was no place like Balyeat’s anywhere near me, at least not that I had been able to find. A place where someone in a waitress uniform would rattle off a list of specials. Where the food had been prepared right there. That came on those old-fashioned thick white china plates in portions that were normal. Where you were warned to save some room for the homemade pies. And where when you saw the check, you were amazed that so many people could eat so well for so little.
This wasn’t the kind of food you got from people who went to chef school. This was the kind of food your grandmother cooked. At least if your grandmother had been a midwestern farm girl during the Great Depression. My own Grandma cooked like that, but I never appreciated it enough when I was young. Which explained why a restaurant that cooked like that seemed so ordinary.
But it was not ordinary. By the time I was old enough to know better, I learned that the place really did have some notoriety. I was surprised to see it mentioned one morning in the Wall Street Journal, in one of those stories that followed someone running for national office who stopped in for a staged session of listening to locals. Because the locals were always there.
The place also did a huge holiday business on Thanksgiving. The picture up top is of some of the extended Cavanaugh clan following Thanksgiving dinner in 2013. The plan fell together and all of us had a wonderful time, a wonderful home-style meal, and nothing to clean up. I don’t know why I wanted to take that picture that featured the restaurant more than the family, but now I’m glad I did.
Unfortunately, the locals won’t be there for much longer. Dale is still behind the counter for a few more weeks. Some higher-class types might say that he “plates” the food. Here, he just ladles it on and serves it up. From what I have gathered, he started working there seventy years ago when he was a teenager. This would put him in his mid eighties now, and time is slowing him down. You can’t roast and carve up two turkeys every Sunday forever, I guess.
I am going to confess that my visceral reaction was one of how the world is just so unfair. This place was part of my childhood. How DARE they close this little local treasure. This reaction was silly, of course. Time marches on and all that, and nobody deserves a good rest more than the brothers who have run the place for all these many years. Seventy years is not a very common work anniversary. I will tell you right now that the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series three times in a row before I celebrate seventy years at my office.
Really, why did I think it would be there forever? I think that we can do that with places, especially those we don’t see that often. These places can become fixed in our memories. Like the little hardware store near me that had practically everything – so long as you could get one of the employees to dig through shelves that looked like something from your disorganized grandfather’s basement. It hasn’t been there for at least fifteen years, but in my mind I know right where to go looking for Minwax wood stain or a gasoline can.
In this one instance, however, there is still time for one more trip to the well. My go-to has always been the beef and noodles over mashed potatoes with green beans on the side and some sugar cream pie for dessert. But the chicken and noodles is pretty good too. Some decisions can be hard. One that should not be hard is to seek out these little places while they remain with us. We have come to live in a world of sameness, where corporate kitchens serve us food that is tested, packaged and absolutely the same whether it is consumed in Philly or St. Louis. Or the new breed of small places with hotshot chefs who will happily serve you a delicious little meal of artisanal this or free range that for, oh, what, $55 per person?
Maybe I’m getting cranky in my advancing age (don’t answer that) but a well-lived life requires a simple little diner where nothing is fancy but the ketchup. A place where all of the time and effort go into the food and not into the decor or the rent. They are out there and it is up to us to find them and appreciate them. While they are still with us.