Babe's Chicken Dinner House in Roanoke
At Babe's Chicken Dinner House in Roanoke, the golden-brown chicken is piled high on the serving platter and the atmosphere is somewhere between a kid's clubhouse and a backyard barbecue. The menu is simple -- fried chicken or chicken-fried steak served family style with mashed potatoes, cream gravy, creamed corn, buttermilk biscuits, and a salad of iceberg lettuce drenched in dressing.
"We set out to develop a restaurant that offers high-quality food and a simple decor in a location that makes you feel like you drove out of town to get to it," says Paul Vinyard, the restaurant's owner. "We try to give people more than they expect, not just meet their expectations."
With Babe's April 1993 opening, the Vinyards set out to start a restaurant with a mystique modeled after the Salt Lick Barbecue in Driftwood. A place that gave the patrons the sense of going someplace special and offering good food to get them to come back. For the first six months, the restaurant three miles east of I-35 halfway between Fort Worth and Denton seemed to flounder.
Already the owners of the successful Bubba's Cafe near SMU in Dallas (Bubba is his nickname and Babe is his wife, Mary Beth's nickname), the Vinyards must have questioned their idea for a new restaurant at first. Then the Dallas and Fort Worth newspapers each ran a story about the chicken shack off the beaten path, and the business took off.
Vinyard says that the large number of cookie-cutter chain restaurants in the Metroplex actually helps small businessmen like him. "People get tired of the corporate decor and long menus," Vinyard says. "The only decisions they have to make with us is fried chicken or chicken-fried steak and what they want to drink.
"We concentrate on making the food like you would make at home if you had the time," Vinyard says. While corporate cafes cook large batches of food and serve it all day, Babe's makes each serving when the customer walks in the door. "They try to copy my biscuits, but they can't," he says, "because we make them one pan at a time, over and over. It takes a little longer and costs a little more, but fresh is better."
And of course, the corporate cafes can't match Bubba Vinyard's sense of humor. The walls of the 93-year-old cavernous hall, which once served as a hardware store, grocery, blacksmith shop, and a plant shop, are lined with Vinyard's jokes. On one wall are three versions of chicken catchers, one using a golf club with a can of beer attached. The waitstaff is surly in a familiar and friendly way. It is all a part of the relaxed and homey atmosphere.
In front of Babe's No. 2 in Garland at 1456 Belt Line Rd., there is an old fire truck painted with zebra stripes. Besides being a photo opportunity for out-of-town visitors, the fire truck is Vinyard's idea of a Mutken catcher. Mutkens are imaginary mutated chickens that grow to 6 to 7 feet tall and 300 pounds in South Texas.
Although it is popular, the Garland restaurant isn't as successful as the Roanoke location. "I forgot what we set out to do with Babe's," Vinyard says. The second location is in a modern shopping center surrounded by neighborhoods and other businesses. Everything on the long menu is made from scratch from family recipes.
All four of Vinyard's restaurants -- he also owns BubbaCito's Mexican Dinner House in Allen, Texas -- go by the motto of offering very fresh, high-quality food, and lots of it for the money, he says. At the end of a meal at Babe's, the waitress brings moist towelettes and plastic bags to the table. The plastic bags are to take home all of the chicken left on the platter. "Having food left over is a big deal," Vinyard says. "It impresses people and they talk about it.
"I like my chicken fresh-cooked so it's almost too hot to eat," Vinyard says. "We try to serve it within 15 minutes of when it was cooked." He does like the idea of giving folks something to take home with them. "It gives them something to talk about the next day," he says.
After 34 years in the restaurant business, the Texas Tech graduate is having the time of his life. He still remembers the good home-cooked meals that his mother prepared on the family farm outside of Turkey, Texas. Using fresh ingredients, simple recipes, and cooking in single batches, Vinyard gives his customers a dining experience, not just a meal.
Babe's Chicken Dinner House is in what is left of old downtown Roanoke at 104 North Oak. Most of the town has moved out to TX 114. Roanoke is about 20 miles north of Fort Worth and three miles east of I-35. Lunch is served 11am-2pm, and dinner is 4:30-9pm, Tuesday-Friday, food is served 11am-9pm Saturday, and 11am-3pm Sunday. The all-you-can-eat meal is $8.61 per person plus drink, and don't forget to tip the waitstaff. There is often a line at the front door, but it is worth the wait. For more information, call 817/491-2900.
Coming up this weekend ...
Night in Old Fredericksburg celebrates Fredericksburg's German-Texan heritage with food, drink, dancing, and entertainment. The event includes arts, crafts, and beer tasting with samples from around the world, July 20-21. 830/997-6523.
Salado Legends, an outdoor musical drama portraying the Scottish settlers who founded Salado and Central Texas is presented by local composers and musicians, July 21 and 28 and Aug. 4. Dinner at 7:30pm is extra and requires reservations; show starts at 8:15pm. 254/947-9205.
Coming up ...
Splash Across Texas, a guidebook to Hill Country swimming holes by Chandra Moira Beal, has updated information at the Web site that includes some better photos than what ran in the book and news about local places to get wet. If you don't own this book, then you're not swimming in the right places. www.beal-net.com/ laluna/splash.html.
The Hobbit, a stage presentation of the classic tale by J.R.R. Tolkien at the Smith-Rich Point Theatre in Ingram, runs through Aug.11. 830/367-5120.