Dining, Grand Island Style

Whether it’s a taste for the familiar dishes of Grand Island’s landmark diner, the Farmer’s Daughter, or something edgy like The Wave Pizza Company’s “Santa Cruz Slider,” parking on Walnut Street is always worth the hassle.

Photographs by Steve and Bobbi Olson and Christopher Amundson

(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

THOUGH IT HAS BEEN years since this was a thriving business district with department stores, law offices and beauty parlors, downtown Grand Island sits resolute, a glimmer of hope in her eye. Fortunately, old habits die hard.

When it appeared a few decades ago that all the restaurants would sell out and move west to greet the highway and join the mall, a few stayed put. And then a few more opened, finding buildings with their own stories to tell worth their idiosyncrasies and the extra bit of advertising it would take to bring back customers.

And the customers did come back. Some remember shoe shopping on crisp Saturdays in September at Brown’s shoes, JC Penney and Sears. Some had a regular stool at the Grand Island Candy Cafe. Most grew up in the Grand Theater, still entertaining patrons with twice the character and for half the cost of the competition to the west.

New customers – some young, others transplants from someplace else – have become old friends fast. They venture downtown where Grand Island’s dining treasures are tucked out of sight but, certainly, not out of mind. 

Coney Island

In fact, downtown dining was one of the first things attorney Fred Vippermon and his partner considered when looking to buy their Grand Island law office. “We’ve got to be close to the courthouse, because we’re lawyers,” Fred says. “And we’ve got to be close to the post office, because we mail a lot of packages. And we’ve got to be close to the Coney.”

Proximity to a place for lunch seldom drives decisions of business and real estate, particularly in a town where nothing is further than 10 miles down the road. But, then again, Coney Island isn’t your typical luncheon spot.

That’s because Gus Katrouzos and his son, George, are bound and determined to make a friend of each customer and remember your name the next time you come around – next week, next year or, as one patron claims, a whole five years later.

“Hey there, girls! How are you doin’?” Gus hollers to a mother and daughter just arriving. “You hungry? Need somethin’ in the belly? Good for you!”

Opened in 1933 by Gus’ father, George Katrouzos Sr., Coney Island just celebrated 75 years in the business of hotdogs, their famous chili sauce, soda in bottles and old-fashioned malts. Despite the bustle of the lunch rush you could say it’s a place where time stands still. The original menu still hangs on the wall, the malt machine looks just like one at the antique store several doors down, and the worn booths are packed with people.

“I was just thinking,” Fred remembers. “I had my fifth birthday party here in 1955.”

And it’s people like Fred who keep Gus clocked in long past retirement, even though his son has been managing quite well for more than two decades. But, then again, Gus grew up here when his own dad ran the place. So this feels like family. “There’s not a day that goes by that you don’t want to take a picture,” he says.

“Hey, did you notice that Gus knew what I wanted before I even ordered?” Fred asks.

I did notice. And it looks really good. I’m thinking that, next time, I’ll have what he’s having.

Blue Moon

Stew Dewitt, co-owner of Blue Moon Coffee Company along with Scot Dewitt, knows all about those regulars. “You see a car pull up, and you know what to make them before they walk in the door,” he says.

But this time it’s not hotdogs we’re eating. Beneath an old sign that reads “Grand Island Candy Cafe,” is the original hardwood floor, worn from generations of candy connoisseurs and, in more recent years, the coffee crowd.

If you’re strong enough to make it past the counter (where espressos, chai lattes and white mochas are born) and on past a case displaying pies, scones, cinnamon rolls and all things decadent, a lunchroom awaits you. There you can sip soup or savor sandwiches and wraps with names like “Moo Moon,” “The Blue Bird,” “The Taz,” “Celestial Pesto” and, my favorite, “P.M.S. Roll-up” – a cure for cravings via cream cheese and pickle.

Old tin ceilings and vividly painted walls bear testament to Stew’s love of downtowns and their architecture. He’s a pro by now with two more stores in Lincoln and the original store in downtown Hastings. That the Hastings Blue Moon was once referred to as “the living room of Hastings” makes Stew grin. I come back with “the parlor of Grand Island.” That resonates with Eric Benson, local chiropractor and lifelong resident of Grand Island, who held his daughter’s graduation party at Blue Moon. “This is my stomping ground,” he says, so definitely worth a trip across town. “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid on a bicycle.”

Today the only souvenirs of the candy company are an old sign and the original candy counter, now home to scads of coffee syrups all in a row. But the Blue Moon still gets its share of pint-sized patrons, eager to sit on a spinning stool for an afternoon hit of whipped cream and coffee beans. And “Open Mic Night” every so often brings in an eccentric cross section of porch swing poets, shower song writers and closet comedians, proof that Stew will try anything to bring in the crowd.

“Just trying to have more evening traffic,” Stew says, “and in conjunction with the Grand (Grand Island’s oldest theater just across the street).”

(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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