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Dallas Times Herald's Sunday magazine, Dallas City.
It's 2:30 a.m. Insomnia, or a late-night argument, or closing time at the bar, something has sent you to the streets. Maybe you've just left work, or you're about to begin the graveyard shift, or you're already on the streets because there's no place else to go. It's long past midnight, and Dallas, the city that sleeps, has all but shut down for the night.
When the plastic conformity of a chain restaurant just won't satisfy, late-nighters thank God and Dan Miller for the 24-hour Lakewood Cafe. Other places in town may offer a hot meal and a cup of coffee, but the Lakewood (aka Dirty Dan's) has that ground-in ambiance that comes only after years of fry grease and cigarette-smoke haze. The walls sport framed pictures of animals and outdoor scenes. There are no prints, however, of dogs cheating at poker.
"I've been coming here three years now," says Helen, a quality-control inspector for a paper plant. "I get off work around 11:30 or 12:30 at night, and I can come straight from work. I don't have to go home and dress up. This," she notes, turning the page of a romance novel, "is a working-person's place."
Open almost all the time -- they shut down for a few hours on Sunday to give the place a rest and a shine -- the Lakewood Cafe has stayed up all night for eight years now. Waitress Billie and Jack the cook have always run the deep-night shift, abetted by folks like weekend waitress Genie and Pam the busgirl. Billie and Jack, by the way, are married, which adds to the feeling of family surrounding the Lakewood's all-night bunch. Says owner Dan Miller, "It takes a different type of people to handle that crowd, at night, the drinking class, but Billie and them handle 'em real well."
There's no TV, no jukebox in the joint; nor is there ever total silence. Invariably, something sizzles on the grill, or an ambulance screams down Abrams Road. On really quiet nights, Billie and Pam trade stories for anyone within earshot.
They'll talk about good stuff, like who made a scene the night before. They pass along information one heard and the other hasn't, maybe about who's in the hospital, or where someone's going for the weekend or what one of the regulars heard over the police radio.
But it's the customers who liven up the place, Billie says: "During the first year we went 24 hours, there was one group of college kids that would come in here around 2 or 2:15 in the morning and stay until about 4:30. I got to talking with them, and they said it was their entertainment ... they didn't have much money, and they said the drunks put on a better show than TV or a movie."
Those college kids had discovered the power of the bar run. It's heaviest after 2 a.m., when the bars close down and patrons need to satisfy the munchies or stave off a hangover. A lot of breakfast food is served during the bar run, washed down with a lot of coffee. Billie says Dan ought to give her combat pay, considering the way folks demand coffee on her shift. "It's dangerous stuff!" she laughs.
A heating and air-conditioning repairman named Gene stops in regularly after long evenings of socializing at his favorite neighborhood bar. Gene's a bachelor, he says, and thinks the Lakewood Cafe is "beautiful, because they put up with me when I got nowhere else to go." He calls Pam "sweet thing," and tips her, too, even though you don't usually tip the busgirl, thus disproving, he says, his former sister-in-law's claim that "he's been a headache for 30 years."
The Lakewood family also gets a kick out of the younger set. "SMU students? I sort of call them my adopted kids," Billie says, grinning. "They'll do what they can get away with, but that's no more spoiled than any other child."
Of one group in particular, she notes, "They'll come in here sometimes on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, and they'll get in the back room there, and get a little loud. Sometimes they'll sing, especially if they've been partying. Like 'Green Acres' or monster songs. And they get customers to join in. We really have a concert with 'em."
Or a photo session. Pam tells of one group of coeds "who came in the other night and were taking pictures -- this one girl climbed on a stool and we watched her 'cause we thought she was gonna fall -- and they were laying all over the counter, just every where. It was OK, they was just having fun. That was early that night. Later the crazies started coming in."
The plat du nuit, every night, is the Super Special: two eggs (any style), hash browns, biscuits, chicken-fried steak and gravy, all for $2.95. Lots of protein, lots of carbos, not a lot of money. The ultimate greasy-spoon cuisine. The Lakewood's volume of customers can support those prices.
Hamburgers start at $1.75. Ann, who works late stocking the luncheon-meat counter at the Safeway across the street, likes the Lakewood's hamburgers because "they taste like old-time." The menu lists a side dish of lima beans for $1.65.
Ann's friend Loretta, a Lakewood regular for 27 years, sometimes prefers a BLT. They both wear the Safeway meat department's white lab coats and talk about how they've been steady customers here since Mr. Cats, a restaurant down the street, shut down.
Doesn't look like the Lakewood Cafe will succumb to the wrecking ball any time soon. Owner Miller turns down buy-out offers. He claims he's not a stay-at-home kind of guy, so he doesn't plan to retire. And business probably won't slow down in the meantime. About a year ago, a drunk driver smashed his car through the front wall, a sort of impromptu experiment at drive-in service, but even that didn't stop them for long.
And how long will Billie be around? Her eyes crinkle behind her initialed, rhinestone-speckled glasses. "For the duration," she says. "Unless I get fired."
During the dawn-lit drive home, ZZ Top's paean to culinary junk, TV Dinners, plays on the radio. Given the choice, we're rooting for Super Specials and Billie's duration at the Lakewood Cafe.