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Opinion: Local restaurants of olde

One of the recurring questions that pop up on the social media site Facebook queries members about what now-defunct restaurants from Madera they would like to revisit.

There are as many opinions as there are groups devoted to discussions of memories of life in Madera.

Growing up my blue-collar family didn’t dine out a lot. We probably visited the Wong family’s Village Restaurant most often as they served exotic Chinese dishes that my parents were unable to prepare easily at home.

A picky eater and the youngest in the family, I would usually order a hamburger and fries. The first adult meal I remember having was a chicken-fried steak dinner.

I must have been in high school before I actually ate the Mandarin Chinese food that made the Village famous, at least locally.

As the best Chinese restaurant in Madera as far as I was concerned, Village food was how Chinese food is supposed to taste. I know many people in Madera have spent years comparing other Chinese food to that of the Village. While many of the Asian restaurants I have tried since they closed have come close to tasting “right,” so far all have fallen short of the mark.

As members of my extended family moved away from Madera, any visit home always included a least one trip to the Village. It is what my family did.

Ordering copious amounts of Village take-out food was always a treat.

I know many people would tell a similar family story about dining at Lucca’s Restaurant located next door. My family found Lucca’s a bit too pricey for the budget of our family of five. In addition to the excellent Italian food served by the DelBianco family at Lucca’s, it was very upscale and getting dressed up for a dinner there was also a bit beyond our means.

It isn’t as if we were so poor we didn’t have decent clothes to wear, but getting dressed up was pretty fancy for a milkman and a nurse with three big old growing kids.

Thinking back, I remember my parents best, wearing their work white uniforms every day.

Fans of Mexican food will often post that they miss the Mexican Kitchen, operated by the Zamora family, located next door to the old Madera Theater on Yosemite Avenue.

Another family favorite, the Fruit Basket Restaurant was built by the Gleichweit family on Gateway Drive on the site of the Pine Cone diner that burned down. They bought it in 1945.

They served nice coffee shop fare, along with assorted pies baked on site from scratch. When the Gleichweits retired, long-time chef, my dear friend Greg Marklund bought it.

After the Quality Dairy ceased operation, my dad, Ralph Hill, baked pies for both the Fruit Basket and Farnesi’s restaurants in the 1980s. He worked a six-hour shift in each kitchen. Daddy also managed the coffee shop for Mario DaSilva at the Madera Valley Inn for a while.

Farnesi’s was another excellent full-service eating establishment on the north end of Madera. Owned by Donnie Cedarloft, Farnesi’s had a coffee shop, dining room and full cocktail lounge.

A smaller coffee shop on Gateway Drive was Mary’s Cafe. I don’t know who owned it. Open 24 hours a day, it was a good place to have breakfast following a night of bar hopping after last-call.

The list of former Madera eating establishments is a nostalgic walk through Madera history.

The food service industry is comprised of great risks and can earn great rewards.

I had two food service jobs when I was in college, and I was dismal at both. I was fortunate to work at the Snow White Drive-In which made the best chili dogs and freshly made donuts in town. Working at the Sno-White, owned by Don and Jean Nelson and their daughter Sharon and husband Sam Biggers, was some of the hardest work I have ever done.

The food preparation area was divided into three sections.

On the cooking side of the drive-in was a grill that took up half the kitchen, a hotdog steamer table and a double deep-fryer. Everything was made fresh and from scratch. All manner of sandwiches, French fries and onion rings were served through walkup windows.

The dessert menu was extensive, including at least a dozen or more flavor variations of floats, sundaes, milkshakes and malts. Balancing soft serve frosty perched on an ice cream cone is a special talent. Turning the whole thing upside down to dip it in melted chocolate takes a sharp eye and a steady hand.


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