Van's remains a Marengo landmark
June 16, 2010Van's Restaurant has been a Marengo landmark for years. Known for its good, homestyle cooking and friendly faces, the restaurant now serves the grandchildren, and even the great-grandchildren, of some of the original patrons.
Charles VanMeter, 90, always liked to cook, and when the Marengo native went into the Army in the early 1940s, he got a chance to ply his trade when he was assigned a job as a cook for the troops in Europe during World War II. When he first entered the service, he was, like many soldiers, pulling guard duty for long hours and hated it. He finally got a chance to work in the kitchen on post and jumped at the opportunity. Before going overseas, he was supposed to go through cooking training, but some officers who had already sampled his cooking skills (mainly his homemade pies) determined he didn't need any training and sent him to Europe to help feed the soldiers.
"I cooked for the soldiers until the end of the war," VanMeter said. "Actually, I was on my way to France when they dropped the bomb and the war ended."
|Rose Toney, left, owner of Vanís Restaurant in Marengo, purchased the business 17 years ago from Janiece and Charles VanMeter, who opened the restaurant in the 1940s. Photo by Lee Cable|
When he arrived home after the war, he went to work for a while at the B.F. Goodrich plant in Louisville but quit to go into the restaurant business in Marengo with his aunt, a woman he called Aunt Pet.
"I could tell that the Goodrich job was going to kill me," VanMeter said. "Aunt Pet bought an old building on the corner downtown, and we went into the restaurant business. A few years later, we built the concrete block building that is now the town hall and had a restaurant there. Then, when Aunt Pet passed away, she left the old building to me and we moved back there."
It was about then that he set his sights on a pretty local girl named Janiece, who was eight years younger.
"I met her when she was a senior," VanMeter said. "I had to wait for her to grow up. On our first date, I took her on an airplane ride. Back then, that was exciting."
After they were married, Janiece joined her husband in the restaurant business.
"He worked in the kitchen and did most of the cooking," Janiece, 81, said. "I worked out front. And Maggie Stewart worked for us for a lot of years. She came to work for us right after high school and stayed the entire time we were in business. The customers always loved her."
Charles VanMeter's specialty was his pies.
"My coconut creme pies and the peanut butter ones were well-liked," he said. "I also made a cherry creme pie that a lot of people liked. If someone liked a certain kind of pie, I'd make one for them. I made them from scratch. One of our competitors called one time and asked if I'd give them a recipe for one of my pies. Heck, I couldn't do that; I didn't have a recipe. I'd just add a little of this and a little of that; that's how you make good pies."
The VanMeters ran the restaurant downtown until 1972, when they had the new building built out along S.R. 64, where it is now located.
"Mike Bell built this building," VanMeter said. "That was before Interstate 64 was built. And we ran it until 1984, when we decided to retire. We leased it to Vivian Jenkins, with the agreement that it would always be called Van's Restaurant."
Seventeen years ago, when Jenkins decided to retire, the VanMeters sold the business and building to its present owner, Rose Toney.
"I sometimes wish I hadn't quit so early," VanMeter said. "I really miss the people. It's a hard life, not easy. You come in early and work late, and you have to please the customers. Most people are really nice, but every once in a while, you'll get someone who isn't. I remember one guy ordered scrambled eggs and told me they weren't fit to eat. I just told him not to come back. We worked seven days a week and were only closed for a few holidays or a death in the family. One time we closed for a week and took a vacation."
"It is hard to take sometimes," Toney added, "when people complain, and I try so hard. I come in at 5:30 a.m., I missed a lot of my kids' ballgames; you have to be here a lot."
Toney, who had worked in the restaurant business for several years as a waitress, was 29 when she bought the business.
"I had always been a waitress," she said. "Vivian Jenkins' son was married to my sister, and she was wanting to get out of the business. I was young and eager, so I bought it."
And she kept the Van's Restaurant name, as well. Her kids helped out, and she also kept Maggie Stewart on as a waitress.
"Maggie was a legend," Toney said. "She retired a few years ago, but people still ask about her. I'm lucky. I've had good employees — I have six now — and I've had a lot of good customers. Most of them I don't think of as customers but as friends. A lot of our old customers have passed away. I've seen a lot die off. And some of the customers were always good to my kids. As soon as they came in, my kids would go sit beside them and talk. Some of them would even go to the kids' ballgames. The kids just loved to see them come through the door. There's a lot of good memories here."
Van's Restaurant is still known for its pies — now baked by Toney. Every year, scores of people order pies to take home for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Last year, the restaurant sold more than 50 pies for Thanksgiving alone.
Every morning during the week and on Saturdays, Van's has a regular crowd of coffee drinkers, breakfast diners and political experts who stop by and exchange news and ideas and keep each other informed about who is in the hospital, who passed away and what work they plan to do that day — after one more cup of coffee, of course.
The lunch and dinner crowd of regulars are often joined by campers, fishermen and boaters en route to and from Patoka Lake. And the back meeting room is often occupied by one of several groups who regularly congregate there.
Van's is open from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday.
The VanMeters are still active. They drive to St. Louis regularly to visit one of their two sons. One son works for Brooks Brothers Clothing and the other one is retired from General Electric.
"I mow a lot of grass," Charles VanMeter said. "And we work in the garden and take some Toby Tours, but I don't cook anymore. She does all of that. I'm retired."
And they are still regular customers at Van's Restaurant.