Dining With Denise Neil

The 10 oldest restaurants in Wichita

Fourth generation continues Livingston's legacy

Melissa Atkinson is the fourth generation of her family to carry on the Livingston's restaurant tradition. She has purchased Jeanne's Cafe in Lincoln Heights Village and is renaming it Livingston's Cafe.
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Melissa Atkinson is the fourth generation of her family to carry on the Livingston's restaurant tradition. She has purchased Jeanne's Cafe in Lincoln Heights Village and is renaming it Livingston's Cafe.

Back when Wichita was young, dining out was simpler.

The restaurants were mostly diner-type places clustered around downtown, in Delano and along North Broadway. They served T-bone steaks for a dime in the 1900s, liverwurst and cheese sandwiches for $1 in the 1930s.

Most of those restaurants closed as time passed, Wichita grew, turtle soup went out of style, and chain eateries became the thing. Long-ago favorites like the Innes Tea Room, Albert’s and Wolf’s Cafeteria now live just in faded black and white photographs and in diners’ memories.

But some of them have survived.

New restaurants seem to open in Wichita all the time, but a hard-core crop have managed to remain in business for 60 years or more. One that’s still operating in Wichita – Livingston’s Diner – can trace its roots back to1910 – 106 years ago.

I’m fascinated by Wichita history and have always wondered which restaurants in town were the longest running. Recently, I decided to try to compile a list, and it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. No one has that list in a file cabinet or saved online. I asked the Kansas Restaurant Association, and they didn’t have the data but told me they’d sure like to know if I figured it out.

My research took me upstairs to The Eagle’s paper archives, which was interesting but not all that useful. Next, I made a list of the restaurants I assumed were oldest and started researching our digital archives.

When I thought I had a good list, I put up a couple of posts on Facebook, including one pointed at a group of Wichita history buffs, asking which restaurants they thought were oldest. Turns out I’d missed several.

There’s a good chance I’m still missing some. There’s also a good chance not all readers will agree with my criteria. I decided to include restaurants that were still in existence in some form of their original intent, even if they’d moved or changed names at some point over the decades. Only a couple of Wichita’s oldest restaurants were still operating in their original buildings, and of those, only one – the NuWay on Douglas – had never changed names.

I didn’t disqualify a restaurant if it had been closed for a period of years somewhere in its multi-decade existence. If it’s still around, I decided, that’s good enough for me.

Here, you will find a list I was able to compile of Wichita’s oldest still-operating restaurants. Many of them surprised me. I’m also including several of the restaurants that readers suggested might be the oldest, along with their ages, many of which will surprise you.

Melissa Atkinson is the fourth generation of her family to carry on the Livingston's restaurant tradition. She has purchased Jeanne's Cafe in Lincoln Heights Village and is renaming it Livingston's Cafe.

1. Livingston’s – 106 years old

Back in 1910, Andy Livingston opened his first cafe at 310 N. Emporia. He sold T-bone steaks for a dime and hamburgers for a nickel.

“That’s where town ended,” said Jeanne Shaft, whose late husband, Bob Livingston, was Andy Livingston’s grandson. “There was nothing east of there. All the action was downtown.”

Livingston’s moved around downtown over the years, and eventually Andy’s son, Gene, took over the business. But Gene had health problems and his doctor told him he needed to get out of the restaurant business. Livingston’s was closed for 12 years.

In the 1960s, Gene’s son, Bob, decided to revive the business he’d grown up in. He opened a new Livingston’s at Kellogg and Poplar.

Bob moved the restaurant several more times over the years. Highway expansion always seemed to chase him out of his locations, Jeanne said with a laugh. In 1992, she and Bob opened Jeanne’s Cafe, then in 2005, they added a Livingston’s Diner at 832 N. Webb Road. Both of those are still operating, though burgers now cost 5 dollars instead of 5 cents.

Bob died in 2012. His widow, Jeanne, runs the northeast Livingston’s. And now his daughter – founder Andy Livingston’s great-granddaughter – owns Jeanne’s Cafe at 4733 E. Douglas. Last summer, Melissa Atkinson changed the name of the restaurant to Livingston’s Cafe.

Jeanne said she and Melissa feel honored to be continuing Wichita’s longest-running restaurant tradition. And they know Andy, Gene and Bob Livingston would be pleased.

“Bob loved the history of the restaurant,” Jeanne said. “He was raised in it.”

2. NuWay – 86 years old

The first NuWay, home of the crumbly but good burger, opened in 1930 at 1416 W. Douglas. More than eight decades later, NuWay is still operating in the same spot, in the same building.

The restaurant has been expanded and updated many times over the years, said Chris Stong, whose family owns the local chain. But one thing has never changed – the recipe for the NuWay sandwich.

“The product is literally the same since day one,” said Stong, the chain’s director of operations.

The founder of NuWay was Tom McEvoy. His widow sold the business to Gene Friedman in 1975, and he added partner Neal Stong in 1980. Stong has been the exclusive owner of NuWay since the 1990s, and now he operates five Wichita restaurants.

But the Douglas restaurant is the flagship. Customers love the history of the building and will drive to Delano to enjoy it, even if there’s a different NuWay closer to their houses, Stong said.

“Nobody today would put a location where the original Nu-Way is because there’s no traffic there,” Stong said. “But it’s still a magnet for people.”

Mary Wright and her son, Don, discuss being named Restaurateur of the Year by the Kansas Restaurant & Hospitality Association. They also explain about receiving new memorabilia related to previous owners Otto and Erna Woermke. Carrie Rengers/The W

3. Old Mill – 84 years old

On March 1, 1932, German immigrant Otto Woermke and his wife, Erna, opened a little soda fountain on the corner of Douglas and St. Francis specializing in ice cream and simple inexpensive soups and sandwiches. They named it Old Mill.

The restaurant, which Woermke moved to its current location in 1940, survived the Great Depression and the decline of downtown, always staffed by the congenial butcher apron-clad Otto until he died in 1981. Since 1982, it’s been owned by Mary Wright, who now owns the restaurant with her son, Don, and still serves from the restaurant’s original marble soda fountain. The menu, which once boasted peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches for 60 cents, is now famous for Wright’s chicken salad and green chili.

People still wait in long lines for tables at Old Mill, and Wichita loves it so much that when the city was considering building the new arena on the block where the Old Mill sits, customers threatened to chain themselves to the building. It never came to that.

4. Merle’s Place – 81 years old

In 1935, Tom and Fern Ioup built a little bar at 440 N. Seneca, an area that at the time was filled with homes and shops. They named their new business Tom’s Inn. Prohibition had ended two years earlier, and the couple was ready to serve beer.

Storz Brewing Co. supported their mission and, in exchange for a promise to sell their beer, built a beautiful mahogany bar for the couple. That bar is still there, though the establishment is now called Merle’s Place.

Merle Bates bought the bar in 1966 and changed the name. It changed ownership several more times but kept its name. Sabrina and Charles Parker bought Merle’s Place in 1996 and have operated it ever since.

Today, Merle’s Place is known for its Reuben sandwich and shuffleboard table, said manager Alicia Kamal, who frequently hears stories about the bar’s early days from longtime regulars.

“It has a lot of atmosphere,” Kamal said. “I always think, ‘What if the walls could talk here?’ 

5. The Beacon – 78 years old

The Beacon at 909 E. Douglas is downtown’s favorite throwback diner. But it hasn’t always been The Beacon.

The restaurant was originally called Curley’s Inn and was owned by J.B. Bright and his wife, Elva. He did the cooking. She ran the register. The diner seated 28 customers, who could buy a cup of coffee, two doughnuts and a hot roll for a nickel.

When the couple retired in 1961, Curley’s Inn became The Riser. In 1987, Al Harris bought the diner and changed the name to The Beacon. Today, it’s owned by John Lee and his son, Andrew Lee, and still attracts crowds, especially on weekends, for breakfasts of French toast, pancakes, bacon and eggs and diner specials like patty melts, hamburger steaks and salmon patties with cream peas.

6. Savute’s – 73 years old

The beginnings of Wichita’s oldest Italian restaurant date back to 1943, when it opened as a nightclub on North Broadway. Back then, North Broadway was mostly a string of nightclubs filled with bootleggers and fun-seekers.

John and Mary Savute, first-generation Italian immigrants, bought the club from relatives in 1951, changed the name to Rosie’s and moved it the following year to the spot at 3303 N. Broadway where it operates today.

For years, the giant Savute family ran the restaurant together, remembers Pete Savute, who owns it today. It was full of Italians and meatball making, just like in the movies.

John Jr., who was a pilot, died in 2001 when a lightplane he was flying struck a power line in Greenwood County and crashed. His son, Pete, has run the restaurant ever since, and he still serves steaks and Italian dishes ranging from chicken scallopini to spaghetti and meatballs.

7. Dog and Shake – 68 years old

Neal Adamson was a steel worker when he got into the restaurant business. He bought Sizzlin Dog in 1948, then opened Neal’s Burger Barn on South Seneca in 1954. He died in 2001.

Two of his daughters, Vickie and Debbie Adamson, and his granddaughter Keisha Webb, are still running the beloved burger and hot dog business that he created. Today, it’s a four-store local chain that includes the original Neal’s Burger Bar location at 4323 S. Seneca.

8. Sport Burger, 68-ish years old

The little Valentine Diner at 134 N. Hillside originally opened in the late 1940s as the Crest Grill. We couldn’t track down its exact opening date, but it was listed in the Wichita city directory as early as 1948. The building has been home to several other burger businesses over the years, including one called Such-A-Burger. Since 2007, it’s been Sport Burger, a drive-through restaurant whose grilled onion-topped burgers have a devoted local following.

9. El Patio – 66 years old

Nick Hernandez opened El Patio in 1950 in the spot at 2227 N. Broadway where Connie’s Mexico Cafe is today. In the early days, he served a dish called “Nick’s Special,” a fried tortilla topped with lettuce, cheese and chile verde. (Modern diners call it a Monterrey.) On the weekends, he served homemade menudo prepared by his brother.

Eventually, Hernandez moved the restaurant to West Kellogg, near the Cotillion, but it wasn’t a good spot. The restaurant went out of business in 1969. More than 20 years later, in 1993, Beverly Murguia reopened El Patio at 901 E. Central, where Angela’s Cafe is now. The restaurant became popular again, and in 1996, Murguia sold the business to her cousin, founder Hernandez’s niece, Teresa Vasquez, who moved it down the block to its current location at 424 E. Central.

Vasquez, who still serves Monterreys, tacos, burritos and killer salsa in the tiny restaurant, said she feels proud that she’s been able to carry on her family’s dining legacy in Wichita.

“My uncle passed away,” she said. “But he was really glad it stayed with the family.”

10. Calvin’s Hamburger Haven, 64

Calvin’s Hamburger Haven first opened in May 1952 in a small building at 1526 S. Seneca. It was a popular place for 1950s teens to hang out. But in 1990, it was forced to move to make way for a new QuikTrip. The restaurant’s longtime fans were not pleased, but the owner at the time promised to move the well-seasoned grill with him.

Calvin’s then landed in the strip center at 1929 S. Seneca that it’s in today. The restaurant still serves old-fashioned-style burgers, said Jose Barba, who has owned the restaurant for almost eight years. He loves to talk to longtime regulars about Calvin’s past.

“A lot of people come here from everywhere, a lot of people who used to eat at Calvin’s,” he said. “We hear a lot of stories.”

Other oldies but goodies:

Ty’s Diner, 928 W. Second St., 63 years old

Bomber Burger, 4860 S. Clifton, 61 years old

Spear’s, 4323 W. Maple, 60 years old

Town & Country, 4702 W. Kellogg, 58 years old

Pizza Hut, all over the world, founded in Wichita 58 years ago

Angelo’s, 5231 E. Central, 56 years old

Candle Club, 6135 E. 13th St., 55 years old

Connie’s Mexico Cafe, 2227 N. Broadway, 53 years old

Felipe’s, several Wichita locations, 49 years old

Scotch & Sirloin, 5325 E. Kellogg, 48 years old

Grinder Man, 510 E. Pawnee, 46 years old

Heritage Restaurant, 4551 S. Broadway, at least 45

El Mexico, 2544 S. Seneca, 40 years old

La Chinita, 1451 N. Broadway, 40 years old

Ming’s, 1625 S. Seneca, 39 years old

Hong Kong, 3028 S. Seneca, 39 years old

Bionic Burger, several Wichita locations, 39 years old

Ah So, 855 S. Oliver, 37 years old

Charlie’s Famous Burgers, 3200 W. 13th St., 35 years old

DeFazio’s, 2706 N. Amidon, 34 years old

Think we’ve missed one?

It’s entirely possible. If you think there’s a restaurant older than the ones we have listed here, let us know by commenting on this story on the Dining with Denise Facebook page, e-mailing dneil@wichitaeagle.com or calling 316-268-6327.

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