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Piccadilly's may be a retro dining experience, but it's nothing like the time warp at the legendary Jerre Anne Cafeteria & Bakery in beautiful downtown St. Joseph.
Named for the founder's two daughters, the 78-year-old Jerre Anne's is two years older than Week-end Marriage — as I pushed my tray down the line one recent Saturday afternoon, I half expected to see Loretta Young eating gooseberry pie in the amazing dining room. The restaurant is located in a white-shingled house with aluminum awnings over the windows, and the eating area looks like ... a residential dining room, with dainty floral wallpaper on the walls and the chairs upholstered in bright turquoise leatherette.
Unlike the bounty at the Piccadilly, this cafeteria line isn't particularly long, and the selection isn't so great. But the fact that it still exists is reason enough to pull off Interstate 29 the next time you're headed to Omaha — or to make the 45-minute drive just for the hell of it.
Jerre Anne's started in 1930 as a delicatessen operated by two sisters, Afra Lineberry and Frances Carolus. The restaurant's Web site says the women started out by selling cold refreshments to the trolley driver and his passengers who stopped on the route out of town, and they turned it into a cafeteria in the 1940s.
On my most recent visit, I brought my friend Patrick, who had grown up in St. Joseph. His mother had worked at Jerre Anne's when she was young, but he'd never eaten in the cafeteria before. "It was too expensive for a big family," he explained.
He was amused by the restaurant's eccentricities — gooey cinnamon butterfly rolls wrapped in wax paper; carrot salad made with marshmallows; and a chicken-and-biscuits lunch, which was more like a brothy chicken soup than a stew.
At Jerre Anne's, you have to appreciate the fact that the food is homemade — like some meals one makes at home, certain dishes are better than others. My beef stroganoff was made with hamburger and elbow macaroni and tasted a lot like Hamburger Helper, which evoked a completely unexpected twinge of nostalgia for me. And not a good one. Similarly, my side dish of scalloped eggplant was a fluffy spoonful of eggy soufflé that reminded me of one of my own madcap culinary experiments with vegetables. Fun, but never to be repeated.
Desserts were quaint, old-fashioned items such as baked custard and apple pie swimming in butter sauce. The cherry pie needed more cherries (it was like a cherry-jam pie), but the coconut-cream pie was fabulous, with a terrific crust.
"At a buffet," Patrick said as we drove out of town, "you can eat all you want, and the food is just about the same. Why go to a cafeteria?"
Which, sadly, told me everything I needed to know about why so few of them remain.