When I heard that the place had shut down, I had the same bittersweet reaction as when the 85-year-old Nichols Lunch locked its doors last autumn. I hadn't spent much time at either place in many years for reasons we'll get to in a moment but I hoped that both would always be there, just in case I ever wanted to go back.
I had a few happy times at Stephenson's such as the night my demure mother got smashed on one of those sneakily potent apple daiquiris and was practically sliding out of our booth before her baked chicken arrived. Mom loved dining at Stephenson's because it reminded her of the kind of restaurants she loved from the 1940s, places that still served things like frozen marshmallow salad, Parker House rolls and Pink Squirrel cocktails.
I liked Stephenson's for a similar reason: It was trapped inside a wrinkle in time. What Loyd and Les Stephenson created as a 10-booth luncheonette in 1946 had evolved over the years into a bizarre labyrinth of "theme" rooms the Cupboard, the Pantry, the Back Porch had grown dated and dowdy over the decades. The shabby décor didn't bother me, but when the food quality and service started slipping, what had been an offbeat, kitschy dining experience became downright dull.
Signature dishes, such as the tender brisket and a fattening baked chicken, were still reasons to visit this badly aging restaurant, but after my last disappointing meal at Stephenson's when the service had become almost unbearably incompetent and once-legendary side dishes, such as the green-rice casserole, didn't even look appetizing I swore I would never return.
Now I can't even try to make Stephenson's-style brisket at home. My neighborhood grocer used to carry the restaurant's seasoning mix, but Stephenson's stopped manufacturing it a couple of years ago.
So there's a lesson, local icons: It's one thing for a restaurant to get old and unfashionable. But to become boring is unforgivable.