When I visited the Suzie-Q Café in Mason City, Iowa, with five friends, we filled most of the nine stools that flanked the weathered countertop.
Dated signatures, thank you notes and doodles lined tile walls surrounding two broad windows, with burly owner Troy Levenhagen, supplying the markers.
This little “Valentine Diner” arrived in town during 1948 and Levenhagen has owned the place since 2007. Created in the heyday of Route 66, tiny Valentine Diners could easily be moved on flatbed railroad cars. They were available through a catalog and came equipped with a grill, counter and less than a dozen stools.
Valentine Diners offered would-be restaurateurs an opportunity to create a brick-and-mortar eatery at minimal cost.
Kansas resident, Arthur Valentine, created the concept. After he and his wife, Ella, opened a restaurant in Hazelton, Kan., around 1930 they added Wichita and Hutchinson locations.
Arthur Valentine became acquainted with prefab ‘lunchroom’ buildings crafted by Ablah Hotel Supply and asked them to make one for him. He later became an Ablah Salesman and then eventually launched the Valentine Lunch System.
After his death, in 1954, the Radcliff family ran the Valentine Diner company from 1957 to 1968.
“There are 52 of these in the United States with 17 operational,” Levenhagen says.
It’s tough to miss the Suzie-Q on a quiet Mason City street, from the bright white exterior walls and deep crimson trim to menu items printed in gigantic black letters near the roof line: Gyros Burgers Fries Huge Tacos.
But breakfast was our meal of choice. Several of us ordered the signature OMwich, self-proclaimed ‘The Best’ breakfast sandwich. Though not served on a bun per the menu, it was a tasty, piping hot combination of fried egg, bacon (sausage or ham were also available), cheese and hash browns.
At $8.50, Everything Hash Browns is the diner’s best selling breakfast. It’s a huge serving of hash browns loaded with green peppers, onions, tomatoes and ham, beneath melted cheese. With toast and eggs this is enough food to fill a belly for hours. And massive plates of homemade biscuits and gravy feature large sausage crumbles.
But Levenhagen is just as likely to share a card trick or create a flash of flame in his palm as he is to pour you another cup of coffee. A professional magician for 20 years, he also offers clowning, hypnosis and D.J. Services. He’s a big Raiders fan too, who proudly displays a Raiders sign and a spatula etched with the Raiders logo.
The rest of the décor is pure vintage, with a checkerboard floor, salt and pepper shakers sporting the Coca Cola logo and classic ketchup or mustard squeeze bottles lining the counter.
Suzie-Q is also a local favorite where one elderly man at the end of the counter has patronized the place since it opened. The next time I visit Mason City I know where I’ll buy breakfast.
Background information about Valentine Diners came from http://www.legendsofamerica.com/66-valentinediners.html