The Hi-Way House is the newest incarnation of a Northland roadhouse that dates back to at least the 1940s. For the past 45 years, it has been known as Harold's Restaurant & Lounge. Harold's wasn't a fancy place by any means, but it had a regular following. People loved the inexpensive homestyle cooking and the dated décor. When I reviewed the place four years ago ("That '70s Place," February 13, 2003), I loved it for being a throwback to Riunite on ice and The Dating Game. Harold's had changed so little over four decades that it was easy to assume waitresses there would be serving deep-fried scallops with a side of quiche forever. Alas, there's no such thing as forever.
The venue formerly known as Harold's has undergone a pretty drastic change, and some of its longtime fans are taking it badly. I watched groups of older customers walk in, look nervously around at what used to be Harold's dining room, sit down hesitantly at one of the formica-topped tables and then, after a flurry of whispers, get up and walk out.
The second time I saw that happen, a waitress followed the 60-ish trio right out to the parking lot to ask why they were leaving. When she came back in, she looked confused: "They told me they left because we didn't have booths anymore."
It's true, there no longer are booths at 4071 Northeast Prather Road. The basket of fake plants hanging in the smoked-glass "greenhouse" section of the dining room is gone, too; that area is now a stage for musical acts that play a couple of nights a week. Also extinct: the stuffed crab appetizer, the deep-fried-chicken dinners, the hot spiced shrimp and the Golden Boy pies.
A few of the Harold's regulars are pretty vocal about the changes. Janice Narron, the smoky-voiced manager (she's also the bartender, the bookkeeper and an occasional cook), told me that she's heard some howls that might have curled her hair if it weren't already curly.
"This one old lady came in with her husband, and she shook her finger at me. I'm sure she was 80 if she was a day. She said, 'You're not going to get the old crowd back in here. They're not going to put up with this shit!'"
Another thing that Harold's devotees don't want to put up with: the pool table that now occupies a good third of the dining room. It takes up space once filled with booths and tables — including the only two reserved for nonsmokers. (The one thing that hasn't changed is the smoking policy; there's still a big amber ashtray on almost every surface.)
"The Hi-Way House is more of a roadhouse than a restaurant," Janice explained as she handed me a one-page menu in a plastic sleeve.
That makes sense because this concrete-block building started out as a smoky little saloon called The Pines. Then it was Doug and Nola's and then, finally, Bill and Johnny's before an entrepreneur named Harold Ash bought it in 1961 and slowly turned it into a combination dining room and lounge. In the early days, Harold served uncomplicated dishes such as chili, but as the place grew more popular, he added steaks, fried chicken and seafood. The much simpler food at The Hi-Way House seems to be a return to its roots.
Sure, a garlic-grilled sirloin and fried catfish and fried chicken livers are still served — just as before — in a plastic basket with a side of ranch dressing. I shared some of those greasy, heavily breaded livers one afternoon with Bob, Lou Jane and Marilyn. Bob admired the shiny, clean linoleum floor and the dining room's fresh paint job, but he couldn't understand why there wasn't any music playing. "I thought roadhouses had jukeboxes," he griped. (There is one, we found out later, in the bar.) Lou Jane found the place to be hilariously strange, practically out of a John Waters film; she was especially tickled to see that one of the new menu items was a grilled-cheese-and-fried bologna sandwich.
I'd been warned about that sandwich by my friend Michael, a big Harold's fan who was one of the first customers at The Hi-Way House. Afterward, he sent me an e-mail to report that he'd been disappointed by a "grilled cheese sandwich made with one measly slice of bologna." Someone had to try it during our afternoon visit, so I ordered it along with a big heap of tater tots. And it was, you know, as boring as any other grilled-cheese-and-bologna sandwich.
The special that day was meatloaf and mashed spuds, which Marilyn and Lou Jane both ordered. It was a thick slab of meatloaf but so bland that they both doused it with puddles of ketchup. Bob liked his barbecued beef sandwich and french fries, though. And for a minute, he thought about ordering the only dessert on the menu: a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
On my next trip, I brought along Franklin, who also had fond memories of the old Harold's but was more tolerant of The Hi-Way House's changes than were a trio of diners who followed us in, sat down for three minutes and then walked out. Janice just shrugged. What can you do?
Franklin toyed with the idea of ordering an all-beef hot dog and decided against a steak. "It's really inexpensive," he whispered, "and that's what worries me!" Finally, he settled on a basket of three miniburgers with sautéed onions. My chicken-fried steak was surprisingly tender but such a stingy little portion that I would have starved if it hadn't come with a generous pile of tater tots. There was a lot of white cream gravy, though. Those little burgers were damned good — and not so mini. He finished only one and took home the other two.
The only other customers that night were a nice-looking set of parents and their three cute teenagers, who happily played pool. The only sour note for that group was when Janice informed them that the kitchen was already out of that cream gravy — this was at about 7 p.m. and the place was nearly empty. She asked whether she could bring out brown gravy with the chicken fried steak. The answer was an emphatic no.
Brown gravy on chicken-fried steak? That's not a change — it's a crime! "They told me they left because we didn't have booths anymore."