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By Kara Nelson. May 2, 2012 - 6:09 am
Have you ever wondered what it was like when your grandparents went on a date?
If you are a fan of Elvis Presley, James Dean, Betty Boop or Marilyn Monroe, pay a visit to Back to the 50’s Highway Fountain, a popular diner in Laupahoehoe on the Big Island. After eight years of waiting, I was finally able to eat there, which is fitting considering that it was my last month of being “A Teenager in Love” (I was turning 20).
Visitors from all over the globe enjoy the restaurant: Take a look at its maps of the U.S. and the world, on which guests put pins to mark their homelands. It is amazing to see that people from all 50 states have visited, and they also come from places abroad like Europe, Russia, Svalbard, the Middle East and Africa.
The restaurant has a 1950s feel and thus boasts plenty of memorabilia. Album slips from records cover the walls, and you will also find posters, vintage Coca-Cola ads, models of vintage cars, framed memorabilia, a Route 66 wall and plaques with quaint sayings like “Rock and Roll was Lost in the 50s” and “Unattended children will be given espresso and a free kitten.” The diner’s front area resembles an old gas station; inside, it has two main eating areas with retro tables, booths, vinyl chairs, seats at a soda fountain counter and checkered floors. The back dining area has a great ocean view where customers can enjoy their meals.
Movie Star Themes
Each area of the diner offers themes that visitors can admire. One side room, called the King’s Room, has a large table and Elvis memorabilia galore, including posters, records and figures spanning the legendary performer’s career. Another room, James & Marilyn’s Gift Shoppe, centers on Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Laupahoehoe’s history. There are also various niches, like one dedicated to John Wayne, and even the bathroom has a Betty Boop theme. The experience is completed by oldies music, which caused my mother to tear up because it brought back memories of the music her aunt played at my great-grandma’s house.
Back to the 50’s Highway Fountain has great prices and an impressive menu, with everything cooked to order. A deluxe hamburger, for example, is $6.95. Other offerings include patty melts, grilled pastramis, ribeye steak ($11.95!), roast beef, seafood platters, a variety of chicken dishes, salads, side orders like chili-cheese fries and beer-battered onion rings, homemade pies, floats, malts, and ice cream sundaes. The restaurant also offers local dishes, like loco mocos and ono or mahi burgers. I had a chocolate milkshake and a $7.95 seafood boat (breaded shrimp, scallops, ono and french fries). The meal was tasty, rich, generous and filling. Both my mom and my friend, Irene Johnasen, were pleased with their $10.95 fish-and-chips meals, each with five good-sized portions of fish.
The restaurant has been open since August 2004. According to the menu, it was the brain child of Larry Ignacio, who with his son Chris Ignacio opened the restaurant. (Chris, who is also the cook, runs Back to the 50’s with his wife Kendra.) “We love it … we love the challenge, but mainly our customers, who have become part of our extended ohana,” the menu reads.
Johnasen, 21, said she enjoyed her experience at the diner, from the meal to the friendly service. She said she thought her dad would love the antiques and food. Other folks, like Hawaii Community College student Caitlynne Johnson-Underwood, also sang the restaurant’s praises. A “snow bird” I know, Roland Rushton, said he and his wife have eaten there three times, and the diner has the “best food, best prices and great blueberry shakes.”
Dawn Wallace, a part-time worker who was very attentive to our party and got our orders in before the rush, said: “I like working here. I like the owners a lot. It’s fun.”
A Piece of History
According to Kendra Ignacio, the restaurant is a worthwhile stop for college students because they can “learn about history. It’s a great history lesson, affordable food, and it’s fun.” Ignacio, who feels many young adults don’t know a lot about the 1950s generation and music, noted that young people can “get a quick crash course” while dining there. Old-timers also “absolutely love” the diner and feel it’s a “walk down memory lane.” They will start to tell stories of how they remember when a certain song came out, or when they saw a performer in concert.
Part of the diner’s success lies in its employees’ dedication. Only four people at most will be working at any given time: one employee, a part-time worker, and Kendra and Chris Ignacio. The atmosphere is “affordable, small, family,” said Kendra Ignacio, who added that people always ask about the business expanding. However, Ignacio said unless she and her husband are there, they would be worrying about what’s going on at the restaurant.
If you’re on the Hamakua Coast, be sure to stop by. I may not be a “Teenager in Love” anymore, but visiting Back to the 50’s still allows me to enjoy a taste – literally and figuratively – of what my grandparents were fortunate to experience in the good old days.