All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
One of the byproducts of a beloved restaurant, odd in a city that’s constantly paving itself over, is the blissful fallacy that it will be there forever. As quickly as we can get pimento cheese to go, we can easily take our oldest restaurants for granted. The Highland Park Soda Fountain is the kind of beloved spot that encourages customers to swear that they’ve had food that’s not even there. Owner Gretchen Minyard Williams, who’s run the Soda Fountain for a decade, says customers tell her they’ve eaten some of the best burgers in their life at her restaurant. The Soda Fountain has never served burgers in its 104 years of being open. That's how much some patrons love it: They believe they're eating burgers there, and that those burgers are some of the best they've ever had.
In August, the Dallas City Council approved a “street diet” on Knox Street that will remove a lane and widen the sidewalks.
“It’s not a good solution,” Williams says. Sonny, her husband, and Gretchen are concerned about the construction creating a traffic bottleneck and a parking catastrophe. At the August council meeting, Sonny weighed in. "It's a feel-good proposal, in my opinion, for a group that does not care about Dallas' past or history,” he says. The project begins next year, and it’s estimated to take up to 18 months.
In 2012, the Highland Park Soda Fountain celebrated its 100-year anniversary. Two years earlier, the couple had closed up the pharmacy end of the business. They converted it into storage space. There’s a shaved ice machine in there somewhere.
“Your kitchen at home is bigger than our kitchen,” Gretchen says, chuckling. “We tried to maintain it while we could.”
Before they bought the place in 2006, Gretchen and Sonny had been Highland Park Pharmacy comfort food fans for decades. They’d bugged then-owner Thell Bowlin about selling. He’d owned the place for 33 years.
On a quiet weekday, I’m sitting in the only place you should sit at Highland Park Soda Fountain: the aging stools facing the counter. There, you can watch ice cream drop into fizzing root beer.
Sunbeam white bread gets a thick brush with butter and scoops of chicken salad and drops into a hot press. After the bread’s golden brown, they add a slice of iceberg lettuce. A little pile of dill pickles on the side, and that’s all she wrote. It’s less money than a Frappucino. I order an egg cream — a dinosaur-era New York-invented drink made of lots chocolate syrup, with soda water and milk — because 100-year-old sodas would cheer up even a Bond villain.
The chicken salad is served hot off the press, loaded with mayonnaise and crunchy celery. The flavor makes me think I’ll pick up the newspaper and see that the Titanic just went down. The egg cream is bubbly and stupendous.
Aside from the sodas and phosphates and the root beer floats, the most popular item at the Soda Fountain is the grilled cheese. Most people order a chocolate shake with their sandwich. This is food that you already make at home, with ingredients that haven’t been anywhere near a farm, so why should you come to the Soda Fountain?
“It’s like eating in Grandma’s kitchen," Gretchen says. "You know it’s good. You know it’s clean. But it’s worn-in. You can see the dings.”
She’s right about that warm embrace. Every time I’m in the Soda Fountain, no matter the mood or state of things, a smile crawls across my face. It’s hard not to feel the time-traveling magic as the employees lightning-pour your coffee and jostle a spoon around into your soda for expert bubbles. On my recent visit, an elderly woman had a sundae in front of her that was nearly bigger than her whole frame.
“Some people are intimated by eating alone. Not here,” Williams says. “We have adults now eating peanut butter and jelly.” She tells me about how it good it is when it comes off that hot griddle. Sold. They hosted a rehearsal dinner last month — the bride and groom opted for grilled cheese and milkshakes.
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Outside the Soda Fountain's walls, that choice might sound surprising for newlyweds — but it makes total sense when you’re inside this sweet time capsule. When you’re sitting on a Soda Fountain stool, lining up for a grilled cheese and seltzer-infused chocolate syrup drinks, it all makes blissful sense.
Toward the end of our chat, Williams talks through the upcoming construction. There’s a note of wistful concern over future business. She mentions that the building is owned by the Weir family.
“We’re just hoping they can continue on as is, so we can continue on as is,” she says. "It’s an older piece of history. You hope that people can realize it.”
The Highland Park Soda Fountain, 3229 Knox St.