For Oklahoma City, Dolores Restaurant is just a memory – another great restaurant that faded away after being a local favorite for decades. But for Los Angeles, the legend continues.
It was in the early 1920s that Ralph Stephens took his first shot at the restaurant business, opening first at NW 4 and Olie, and then later at Main and Broadway where competition and a lot of debt led him to flee in 1923 with his wife, Amanda, sons Vince and Bob, and daughter Dolores.
The family made its first stop in Dallas, where Stephens later said he saw “a pig stand with what looked like a thousand cars around it.” Indeed Dallas was where the very first pig stand (forerunners to drive-through restaurants), Kirby’s, had opened in 1921.
Stephens was hired by one of the Dallas pig stand chains and learned the operation in Dallas before setting out to open a stand in Little Rock. Before going to his post, Stephens took his family to his wife’s family house in Hannibal, Mo. And it was there that Stephens, visiting with his father-in-law, a carpenter, decided it made more sense to open their own business rather than work for someone else.
The family “slept in the stand” while it was being built, and in June 1925, Goody-Goody Barbeque opened for business. Business initially boomed. But the crowds disappeared once cold weather settled in.
Once again, Stephens was a failed restaurateur.
“We closed, and being sort of soldiers in fortune, we took off for Florida,” Stephens explained in a 1968 interview. “The land boom was on then and we went to Tampa and opened one restaurant, then another. They had told us there were no rooms in Tampa so we bought a tent and slept under that until we almost flooded out.”
The crash of 1929 once again killed Stephens’ short-lived success story. The family returned to Oklahoma City with Stephens determined to settle his debts and prove he could be a successful restaurant operator.
And this time, he was coming with a secret weapon. While in Hannibal, Amanda Stephens obtained a recipe for “comeback” sauce from a barbeque stand in nearby Quincy, Ill. And what a comeback it would be.
Dolores Restaurant, named after Stephens’ daughter, opened at 33 NE 23 on April 15, 1930.
“The Depression hadn’t hit Oklahoma yet and the first year our volume was $52,000,” Stephens said. “We never closed our doors when the Depression hit, but we were selling hamburgers and malts for a dime each to stay open.”
By the 1940s Dolores was becoming a top pick for Route 66 guidebooks. Duncan Hines recommended the restaurant in his 1941 book “Adventures in Good Cooking,” saying “I enjoy eating here, especially their steaks and Susi-Q potatoes and barbequed ribs. They have the best biscuits I have found anywhere in America, made by Neal, a colored woman, who does not use a recipe, but has a remarkable sense of feel, which tells here when the mixture is right – served twice a week (I suggest you wire ahead requesting these remarkable biscuits). Their menu provides a variety of good salads and other things, and I hope you are fortunate enough to find Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Stephens there, so you may meet them personally.”
Dolores Restraurant was booming enough without the high praise from Mr. Hines – that winter Stephens shut the restaurant for a couple of weeks, expanded the dining area and engaged in a bit of rare advertising (Only after selling the restaurant to investors were advertisements seen again in the early 1970s)
Stephens’ brother-in-law, Bob Ogle, became manager of the restaurant (“Ogle’s Special” referred to a root beer float he perfected) and in 1945, Ralph and Amanda Stephens moved to California. They opened a Dolores Drive-In on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, and followed up by opening three more restaurants.
Stephens eventually sold all but the Beverly Hills drive-in, which he turned over to his son Bob in 1961. His second son, Vince, meanwhile, was building up a legend of his own back in Oklahoma City.
Maybe you’ve heard of it – the Split T.
In 1966 Amanda Stephens died. Ralph Stephens quickly remarried, and in 1968 he bought The Pub at 6418 N Western. A year later he sold Dolores Restaurant to a group of investors, who closed it for good in 1974. After eight years of standing vacant, The Catering Co. announced plans to reopen the restaurant, but if it did reopen (there is no further record of the restaurant), the venture was short-lived. The building was razed a few years later.
The Dolores name, meanwhile, endures in Los Angeles with the Stephens established a chain of their eateries.
The following history is provided by Dolores Restaurant at www.doloresrestaurant.com:
Dolores was founded by Amanda and Ralph Stevens, who after owning various restaurants in different states moved to Los Angeles in 1944 and opened the Dolores drive-in restaurant in Hollywood.
These “good times” would soon end when in 1981 Dolores drive-in was forced to close down to make room for a high rise office building. The last of the remaining Dolores Restaurants is the one you see today located at 11407 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Los Angeles where the food and service are like they have never been before
In 2008 Dolores Restaurant was put under new management. With a fresh new vision, a passion for taste and quality food and a true concern to support local growers, new owner, Kourosh Izadpanahi, brings a new take to this classic diner. The new Dolores Restaurant meets today’s customers’ needs for taste and health conscious food.
Many of these photos, menus and mementos were provided by Chris Chesnut, great-grandson of Ralph and Amanda Stephens, and Dale Cobb, daughter of Dolores Cobb. For Chestnut, whose grandfather was Bob Stephens, the Dolores legacy is every bit a matter of family pride. His photos reflect Ralph and Amanda Stephens’ friendship with Duncan Hines, their life spent in Florida, and their pioneering of drive-in restaurants. Chestnut drove with his young family from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City to help Retro Metro OKC celebrate its “birthday” on July 15, 2010, and webmaster Justin Tyler Moore did a scanning demonstration at the end of the evening. Dale Cobb and her husband James also joined in the fun and brought the famous Dolores Comeback Sauce for the party.
With such acts of graciousness and friendship, Retro Metro OKC considers the Dolores family kindred spirits and cherished allies in sharing yet another bit of city history with future generations.