Days Gone Bite: Blue Plate Specials

Driving around Dallas last week I came across an abandoned concrete structure with block glass inlays and "restaurant" painted across the front.

It was like spotting an original streamline diner--different construction materials, I know, but the rounded corners and crumbling Art Deco era touches inspire the same flush of nostalgia. From the looks of it, this had been a bus station back in the 1930s. And quite probably its kitchen served blue plate specials.

Now, the blue plate special hasn't vanished completely from the American landscape. You can still order one at Norma's Cafe, for example. And Blue Collar Bar on Henderson is dedicated to its memory--right down to the compartmentalized plates. In the 20s, 30s and well into the 40s, however, blue plate specials were common to just about every diner and small highway restaurant in the country.

The idea was simple: a meat and two sides for one low price, usually around 25 cents during the depression. Because restaurants prepared these in advance, and because quick service was part of the deal, guests could ask what was on that day's plate but they could not call for substitutions.

Blue plate specials fit the mood of a nation newly addicted to the open road, as well as one in the throes of economic collapse. They were the era's fast food option, the staple of office workers and traveling salesmen--and handy for those who didn't want to read through a menu, as well.

Naturally no one knows, with any real certainty, how they earned the name. There are stories, of course: plates with three divided sections only came in blue, the manufacturer of said plates stamped them with a blue insignia--that sort of thing. We do know, however, what essentially killed off this feature of American culture after 30 plus years in the mainstream.

The specials began disappearing in the 1950s, just as new multi-lane interstates were bypassing narrow, diner-lined highways and quick service chains were popping up around exit ramps and on busy intersections.

And just as streamline architecture faded from popularity.

With so many fast food options, meal deals and business lunches available nowadays, the idea of ordering a blue plate special seems quaint. But at least they haven't disappeared completely.

Just be wary of upscale "blue collar" deals. They may get the 'meat and two sides' part right. But they completely muck up the price point.