My parents, Myrlin J. Richards and Mary V. Richards, owned and operated a restaurant in west Ames from about 1955 until sometime after 1972. My mother was from south-central Nebraska, and my father was from southeastern Colorado, although his family has roots in Iowa. In his youth Dad spent summers on the family farm in Wright County, and my great-grandfather is buried in a family plot in Webster City. Mom and Dad ran a delicatessen in Tacoma, Washington for a time, but decided to move to Ames in 1951 so Dad could attend Iowa State College. They bought an Air Stream trailer that they named "The Wild Goose" and brought themselves and three children across the Rocky Mountains from Puget Sound to the plains of Iowa.
After a couple of years studying engineering at Iowa State, my father bought a restaurant across from the Iowa State Highway Commission facilities. A year or two later he bought a second restaurant on the Lincoln Highway in the western outskirts of Ames. Already known as the Nibble Nook, the name was continued and is still familiar to many long-term residents of our city. For a time Richards Holiday House was tried as a new name, but was soon abandoned when callers, confusing it with the Holiday Inn, kept requesting room reservations.Operating two restaurants was too much, so my father sold the first one and focused his energies on the second one west of town. He added a carhop station to it and introduced curb service to Ames. Then he added a dining room that featured a large, stone fireplace with an over-mantel bronze relief sculpture of two mustang horses running side by side.
Next he added a second dining room paneled in dark, stained knotty pine featuring a large mural. A copy of one by Grandma Moses, it depicted many homespun images of rural life such as hanging out the wash and feeding animals. In this dining room my father incorporated a plate rail into the paneling design, and for many years collected plates and displayed them in the room.
The addition of a buffet room introduced this type of service to Ames. His specialties were pearl tapioca, pinto beans, and fruit and custard pies, all made from scratch in the restaurant kitchen. His pie crusts were light and flaky like good country cooks make, not the thick, soft, waxy creations that come frozen out of factory kitchens today and are sold as home-made. We processed enough of the food we served to feel slightly embarrassed to be found opening cans (which we also did). The final building project my father undertook at the restaurant was the carport. That enabled people to pull up and drop off passengers under the protection of a roof.
We stayed in the restaurant business in Ames from the early 1950s until my father’s untimely death in 1972. I ran the business for a short time after that until my father’s affairs were all concluded. Then we leased it to a long-time employee of his, Celia Baker. She and her husband ran it as Baker’s Buffet for a few years. During their tenure, a group of Asian students undertook a search for a place where they could share a congregate meal on Sunday evenings. The search brought them to the Bakers who let them use the restaurant.
In a fairly short time this led to an Asian restaurant being started in the building alongside Bakers’ Buffet. This was most probably Ames’ first Chinese restaurant. They operated together for a while, but eventually Bakers bowed out and left the place to the Asian restaurant. It operated for a short while and folded. A second Asian restaurateur took it over and made a success of the business now named Fu Lin. This all occurred in the first half of the 1970s. The property changed hands again in the course of settling my father’s estate and the Fu Lin Restaurant closed.
The business that replaced it was a bar/restaurant called Smokey Pete’s. My father had always toyed with the idea of getting a liquor license, but was prevented from doing so by my mother’s staunch Methodist upbringing. She had been a tireless campaigner against liquor by the drink when it came to Iowa, so much so that during those years her brother from Nebraska sent her an axe in case she wanted to bust up a saloon. My father once confided to me that he didn’t really mind not serving alcohol. He said people weren’t always at their best when drinking, and doing business with alcohol could have significant downsides.
While my father and I were both touched by my mother’s fervor, I did spend some evenings at Smokey Pete’s. They retained much of the original décor of the place, but filled the front dining room with a bar. The managers of Smokey Pete’s were talented carpenters, and had fabricated a bar top out of particle board that they molded into graceful curving shapes. Filled and smoothed and then sprayed with a coat of pearlescent blue automotive lacquer, it became truly unique. I believe Smokey Pete’s was the last restaurant to operate in that building.
Although I don’t remember the exact year (it was when Larry Curtis was mayor of Ames [1990-1997]), a fellow came up with the idea of combining a laundromat with a bar and soon had the fastest growing franchise in Iowa. He bought the restaurant property, demolished the building, brought in several feet of fill dirt, and built a new building. His place was called Duds and Suds. With its demolition in turn the site now awaits more intensive development as Ames grows to the west.
Looking back on the years when the Richards family operated a restaurant there, I see how our family worked together to make the enterprise a success. We all pitched in and made a good life together. Our biggest meals were Sunday noon and Iowa State games. People would line up and wait for us to open the doors. We could let 225 people through the buffet line and get them seated in about 30 minutes. Then over the course of the next two hours or so we could feed 150 more. That was about the limit of our resources. Then there would be a tedious process of putting things back right and sparkling clean and preparing for the next meal.
Ames has grown out past the site of Richards Restaurant. All the land surrounding the site was still planted in row crops when my father died in 1972. Now it is all prime commercial real estate. Had he lived, he would have been a wealthy man.
View additional images of Richards Restaurant
NIBBLE NOOK RECOLLECTION
By Jerry Litzel
Good onion rings and french fries! Every Friday night our family called in an order to Richards. My dad and I would get in his 1949 Chrysler "woody" station wagon, pick up the order and bring it back home for us, my mom and two brothers. I rode along in order to eat some of the fries while they were still fresh and crisp. We only lived a half-mile away, so I had to eat fast. Of course my tongue always got burned in the process. When Richards had the drive-in restaurant, I remember my dad getting upset once because the car hops didn’t take his tray off the car window quickly enough. He set the tray on the ground and took the catsup and mustard squeeze bottles home where we used them for many years after. One special night we were eating there during Miss America’s visit to Ames (1950s). Before she left, she asked if she could take a menu home with her for a keepsake. [According to Tom Richards, she also received a marriage proposal that night!]