by Jim Bulls
Every Reedley High School student from the late 1940s into the 1970s remembers Willie’s Drive In, directly across the street from the high school. This was the closest place, off campus, where the smokers could light up their cancer sticks.
Willie was an interesting man. He got along well with the students. That was the place where I first saw the poster proclaiming “Profanity is the crutch of the illiterate.” It hung in a prominent spot inside the drive-in.
Basically the seating consisted of stools around a counter, with a juke box in the corner filled with your favorite 45 rpm records, just for the customer’s listening pleasure. Food was simple. He split the hot dogs in half length-wise and fried them on the grill, then served them plain or with chili. You could have a hamburger with or without cheese. When I was a freshman in high school, Willie only offered potato chips, but by the time I graduated he had a deep fryer and offered French fries.
Willie only served lunch and his clientele was made up of high school, college students and the employees at Nash De Camp. His business hours revolved around the school calendar, including staying open late after Friday night football games. Willies was a welcome retreat from those drizzly or foggy Fridays when the football team was losing another game. His hot chocolate hit the spot.
Willie had an interesting life before his 30 odd years of flipping burgers. During the 1930s, he was a chauffeur for some Hollywood bigwig. Because he knew of my interest in all things cars, he shared several stories with me.
His boss owned three cars that would certainly be considered classics today: a Spanish built Hispano Sousa, a Rolls Royce and a Packard. The Hispano Sousa would never leave the L.A. Basin since mechanics available to work on it were few and far between, but it was the vehicle used for all red carpet extravaganzas. The boss often traveled to Las Vegas for business, sometimes for several weeks. Willie did not like taking the Rolls to Vegas because it was labor intensive. Not only did you have to tune it up before the trip, but it had to be done again before the trip home. The vehicle of choice for road trips was the Packard.
Willie said that all the chauffeurs had their own meeting while in Las Vegas. First on the agenda was to make a “stand-by” schedule, where one chauffeur would be available immediately if one of the bosses was to need transportation. Second was who in the group would be the designated chauffeur to all the rest. Willie and his Packard spent a lot of time as the “party” car since basically all you had to do the Packard was wash, use the chamois, sweep the carpet, empty the ash trays and top off the gas tank before taking the boss home. Willie retired from the business around 1971. A few other people attempted to run a similar business but not as successfully. A barber shop now occupies the building.
But not to worry, there’s a new Willie’s in town. Willie’s Cafe opened near the corner of 11th and G streets in February 2017. A historical note here: most Reedleyites saw their first color T.V. at Conner’s Record Shop located in the corner store of the same building. So, I decided to pay Willie’s a visit.
The inside of the Cafe isn’t much bigger than the original Willie’s, and there is limited seating outside on the sidewalk. I ordered a chicken fried steak and within five minutes, it was delivered to my table, piping hot and looking (and smelling) delicious. And it was. In fact, it reminded me of the chicken fried steak I used to get at Sun King a long time ago.
Willie and “B” the waitress (short for Beatrice) used to work for Weldon Byram at The Pub. Willie was the chef. “B” was a waitress there and also worked at the grocery store and deli in Parlier. “B” also said that the cuisine at Willie’s Cafe is different from what is served at The Pub. As far as I could tell, the prices are comparable to the dining competition in Reedley.
Walking into Willie’s Cafe felt as comfortable as if I had been going there for years. They are open Monday through Saturday, from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. They serve “American” food.
Try it, I think you’ll like it!
Check out more Reedley history articles by Jim in our Hometown History section.