Some towns, even very small towns, are known for having at least one really great restaurant.
Albion (population 270) was renowned for the now defunct Annie-Laurie Cafe, which served steaks big enough that, if the legs had been attached, you could have thrown a saddle on one and ridden it home.
Mexican food at Kuna’s El Gallo Giro and Enrique’s draws customers from far beyond Kuna.
Nampa’s El Charro started out as a taco truck and became a destination restaurant for diners throughout the valley.
I was reminded of iconic Idaho restaurants in a recent email from online reader Judy Pray of Medford, Ore. Pray was writing in response to one of my columns she’d found on Google about the late, great Manley’s Cafe. This led to a phone conversation in which she shared a part of the Manley’s legend that, but for her, may well have been lost.
Food junkies in Idaho and beyond get misty-eyed just thinking about Manley’s, a modest but unforgettable eatery on Boise’s Federal Way. It was a small, low-slung, rundown building with faded white paint, a rickety screen door and a dirt parking lot. Inside were a few well-worn tables, beat-up stools lining a Formica counter and a bustling kitchen where cooks prepared meals remembered for life.
There was absolutely nothing fancy about Manley’s. It served plain food and plenty of it. The unassuming little cafe was famous for its generous portions. If you ordered prime rib, you got a slab of meat big enough for two with enough left over for dinner the next day. In the off chance that you still had room for dessert, the options included a quarter of a pie with a pint of ice cream. The pies, and virtually everything else on the menu, were made from scratch.
People came from all over to dine at the little cafe with the big big reputation. Celebrity customers included Clint Eastwood, Arnold Palmer and concert violinist Eugene Fodor, who agreed to play in Boise on the condition that he be taken to the legendary Idaho cafe where no one ever left hungry.
When journalist-humorist-food writer Calvin Trillin visited Boise for a story he was writing for the New Yorker magazine, some co-workers and I took him to Manley’s for lunch. His reaction upon seeing the humble, grease-glazed interior was surprise, followed by a grin that illuminated his face.
“People associate me with New York, but I’m from Kansas City,” he said. “When I travel, people always take me to the fancy restaurant in the revolving glass ball on top of the tallest building in town. The food is always awful. This is my kind of place.”
The place had a unique history, part of which is all but forgotten. It was rightly famous as Manley’s, but it wasn’t always Manley’s. W. Manley Morrow, a chef who had a big appetite and assumed everyone else did, made it the cafe most of its fans wistfully remember. But its founder, now remembered by few of its fans, was a man named Eddie Barker.
Pray remembers Barker better than anyone. He was her father.
“When I think about the fact that everyone knew it as Manley’s, I think, ‘Hey, what about Dad? He’s the one who started it.’”
Her father, she said, was a Marine who served at Guadalcanal during World War II, attaining the rank of sergeant, and went on to become something of a Boise fixture.
“He was well known around Boise because of his service during the war. They called on him for a lot of parades and patriotic processions with flags because he was a commanding figure. His picture was in the paper a few times.”
Barker and his wife, Miriam, bought the property that would become known as Manley’s in 1942, the year they were married. It was then a large lot with a small house and a food truck. When her father returned from the war in 1946, Pray said, her parents started a restaurant there.
“Dad worked and worked on it. He’d never run a restaurant, but he loved to cook. He built a rose garden around the little house and the food truck, leaving them as a kind of kitchen area. The cafe incorporated the food wagon.
“There was a trellis with roses that you came through to get to the garden. Dad put tables and chairs in the garden and planted roses around them and watered everything with flood irrigation to keep it nice and green.”
The Barkers named their enterprise the Rose Garden. It was locally famous, she said, for its hamburgers.
“It had a big griddle Dad would cook the burgers on. They were very popular. Mom and Dad had to hire car hops to keep up. They never did branch out into fancier foods. They concentrated on burgers, fries, hot dogs, root beer floats and chocolate dipped cones.”
Hearing her description of the Rose Garden brought back an early childhood memory. My folks were fans of the Rose Garden and occasionally took me and my sister there. I remember the trellis, the roses, the green, shaded lawn – and some of the best burgers ever.
The Barkers sold the business in the early 1950s.
“With just the two of them running it, it wore them out,” their daughter said. They were tired all the time and wanted to try something different.”
They moved to Oregon, where Eddie Barker worked for the Electrolux vacuum cleaner company. Manley kept the restaurant’s original name for a while – it eventually became known as Manley’s Rose Garden – but, like the roses themselves, the name faded and Manley’s Cafe became the name remembered today.
The site where it stood is now Terry Day Park. The late Terry Day and her husband, Pat, lived next door to Manley’s and donated the land for it. It’s a pretty little park, with a walking path, playground and tennis courts.
One thing is missing, though. The cafe’s unique and colorful history deserves better than to be forgotten. The city might want to consider a modest sign or plaque telling the Rose Garden/Manley’s story.
“I think Dad and my mother would have loved that,” Pray said. “It’s sad that no one in Boise remembers them.”