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New Book From Longtime Eagle Reporter Serves Up A Slice Of Wichita's Restaurant History

Wolf's Cafeteria closed in the 1960s.

A new book from longtime Eagle reporter Denise Neil looks at Wichita's savory dining history.

Denise Neil has written about Wichita’s restaurant scene for The Eagle for more than 20 years.

Denise Neil has reported for the Wichita Eagle for more than 20 years.
Denise Neil has reported for the Wichita Eagle for more than 20 years.

She said her most popular stories often dealt with restaurants from Wichita’s past, like the Inness Tea Room and Abe’s.

Now Neil has gathered the city’s restaurant history into a new book, “Classic Restaurants of Wichita.”

She spoke with The Range about the emotional ties people have with restaurants, the Lebanese influence on Wichita’s dining scene and why you can’t get a White Castle slider here.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Tom Shine: As I got into the ‘80s and ‘90s part of the book, I started recognizing places that I had gone. But for me it was less about the food and more about the memories of a particular restaurant.

Denise Neil: I think a lot of it is the nostalgia of it, the memory of going there with your family. I mean, restaurants are places you gather with friends and loved ones and have good times. And so I feel like even more than any other kind of business or even building, restaurants just kind of strike a chord in people's hearts. And that's what they remember … the times they spent there.

Talk about the Lebanese contribution to the Wichita dining history.

Probably one of the most influential people on our dining scene, who I talk about in the book, was Antoine Toubia, and he started the Olive Tree.

But he's really credited with taking us from those sort of boring meat and potatoes menus that most restaurants had through the ‘50s, ‘60s. And he started introducing people to unique preparations and sauces and more continental cuisine that we really didn't have before.

And then he had a lot of people who followed in his footsteps and sort of changed the way we ate in Wichita or at least introduced us to a more sophisticated way of dining.

Here's a question I'm sure you get all the time: How can Wichita be the home of White Castle if there's no White Castle here?

White Castle started here and it was one of those things that took off and was successful, the little square burgers. The founder met up with another guy, and they moved the headquarters to Ohio and not long after they sold out their local restaurants to A.J. “Jimmy” King, who went on to start the Kings-X chain, which we also loved. So at least we got that out of the deal.

But yeah, no White Castle around here. You can get them in Dillons in the frozen section. But people ask that question all the time.

We had a Chinese restaurant or Asian restaurant in … 1916, which just surprised me that we had that type of dining that many years ago.

When you look back at the Asian restaurants that operated back then, the descendants will tell you they were all called chop suey palaces. So they made this mixture of vegetables and meats called chop suey, which is not a Chinese dish at all, but they were trying to appeal to American palette. So Fairland Cafe, Holly Cafe, Pan-American Cafe, which were early ones, had chop suey that they advertised in their signs. And they had steaks and sandwiches and fried chicken because … Wichitans weren't quite ready for real Chinese food back then.

So what is garlic salad and who invented it?

I've read several stories where Doc’s (Steakhouse) said they invented it. Ken's Klub said they invented it. Maybe Savute’s. Who knows who invented it? All I know is it exists and Wichita loves it.

How has NuWay managed to stay in business since 1930? What's the allure there?

It's something that people grew up eating. It tastes like childhood. They can't get enough, and that place is still going strong today.

I live over by the original one that has been around for a hundred years, and it's still operating. And I just think that's amazing.

When I first moved here … Wichita had a reputation (that) people ate out a lot. That still seems to be the case, right?

I don't know what it is about our Wichita culture, but yeah, we do like to eat out. It's kind of our number one form of entertainment. And it's like people who are in the know about restaurants are kind of a club, and that's what we like to talk about. And that's what we like to do. So I like that about our town.

So you're going on a 12-month cruise around the world. And on your last day in Wichita, you had to pick different locations for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Where would you go and what would you eat?

Oh, wow. Well, my favorite breakfast … I love the Eggs Benedict at Doo-Dah Diner. It's really good. Tanya's Benny they call it. And they also have a lowbrow version of Eggs Benedict at the Beacon that I truly love.

If calories don't count … then I'm going to Reverie or Bagatelle and getting all the croissants I can eat.

Lunch … I think I would have to go on a tour of all the little taco places around town that have the greasy carne asada tacos … Well, I love Molino’s, and I love the Pollo Express at Meridian and Pawnee. So I think I’d just go on a big taco tour.

And then for dinner, I would either have my favorite Piatto pizza. … I could eat that forever. It has the best dough, tomato sauce. It's very interesting.

Or I would just ask for a big plate of bloody steak ’cause I'm a Kansas girl, and I like me a rare steak. That's my dream dinner.

Denise Neil will sign copies of her new book Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m. at Best of Times gift shop, 6452 E. Central, and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. at Shop & Grub Market in Naftzger Park.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.