For the second time in as many years, Daily Republic columnist, self-described “humorian” and Fairfield raconteur Tony Wade has written a book about the city’s bygone days, the newest being “Lost Restaurants of Fairfield, California.”
A continuation of sorts of his first effort, “Growing Up in Fairfield, California,” this equally light and lively read unfolds in 197 pages, nine chapters and an epilogue, dozens of black-and-white archival photos and graphic images, as he dishes warmly and humorously on long-gone beloved dining spots, from the Firehouse Deli-Cafe to the Hi-Fi Drive-in to Dan & Ruth’s Cafe, and their sometimes colorful owners.
Published by American Palate, a division of The History Press, the book is dedicated, he noted on the page preceding the table of contents, to the county’s restaurateurs “who, over the decades, nourished the bodies, hearts and souls of generations of Fairfielders.”
In the preface, dubbed “Meals and Memory,” Wade noted that memories written in the Facebook group “I Grew Up in Fairfield” often had “many threads” that “defaulted to food” in a town known from some posh restaurants but mostly “good ol’ American” fare. He also included a quote from author Michael Moss’ 2021 book, “Hooked: Food, Free Will, and How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions,” that “most everyone has a food memory that helps define who they are.”
But the new book, besides recounting memories “of old places where you could get your grub on,” also is a catalog of untold stories about restaurant owners, among them Yozo Ikenaga, who owned and operated the Mint Grill and the Park Inn and was later sent to a Japanese internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and the outbreak of World War II for the United States.
His research, Wade added in the preface, showed “just how entrenched eateries were and are woven into the very fabric of Fairfield.”
The book’s nine chapters touch on the earliest of the city’s dining spots, burger joints, the “classy” places, ethnic eateries, pizza parlors, “reincarnated restaurants,” some Suisun City places, pastries and desserts, and one called “Setting the Record Straight,” which poses such questions as “Was Fairfield’s Arnold’s Food the inspiration for Arnold’s on ‘Happy Days’? ” and “Colonial Kitchen or Colony Kitchen?”
The photos add visual evidence and commentary about the times, largely from the mid-to-late 20th century, evoking a naturally good measure of nostalgia. There’s Union Avenue in the early 1900s; the Park Inn, which later became the Black Swan and the Ranch House; the Sno-White Drive-in, later the Sno-Man Drive-in, which, as Wade wrote, “stuck in the minds of many Armijo students way longer than algebra ever did”; the exterior of the Firehouse Deli-Cafe; a portrait of Dan and Ruth Amarillas, namesakes of the Rockville Road restaurant; the Hungry Hunter in 1996; and Johnson’s Pastries and Cafeteria in downtown Fairfield, a large American sedan, vintage mid-1960s, in the foreground.
Wade’s informal bibliography cites several books. Besides Moss’, there is John Allen’s “The Omnivorous Mind: Our Revolving Relationship with Food,” John R. Walker’s “The Restaurant: From Concept to Operation,” plus the websites Ancestry.com, Facebook, Newspapers.com and editions of the Daily Republic on microfilm at the Fairfield Civic Center Library.
During an interview Tuesday, in the Solano County Government Center in Fairfield, where he works part time for the Registrar of Voters during election seasons, Wade, 58 and a “Navy brat” born in Portsmouth, Virginia, proved once again to be as cheerful, forthcoming and thoughtful as the tone of the new book and his newspaper column, “Back in the Day.”
A tall, slim man boasting a pleasant baritone voice, he said his initial idea for his sophomore effort was a book about Vacaville, which would take “a lot of research.”
An editor suggested “lost restaurants” instead, recalled Wade, adding, “I balked at that. How interesting could that be?”
But, as it turned out, he seemed to suggest, the editor was onto something.
The new book is, fundamentally, he said, at “the intersection of meals of memories,” how, when we eat, “you’re using all your senses. Sometimes those memories can stay with you the rest of your life.”
The project began in November with daily writing and took several months to complete. It was only “10 percent written,” based on information from his columns, whereas the first book was already “75 percent written” and was mainly based on previously written weekly columns.
Wade said he was familiar with names such as The Firehouse Deli-Cafe and Smorga Bob’s, but the many dozen other restaurants, cafes and eateries he had never heard of.
“I had to do a lot of research, stumbling across information that was interesting,” he said.
He discoursed at length about Ikenaga, who owned The Mint Grill in Suisun City, and whose life largely came to an end with his arrest by the FBI and eventual internment at the Poston War Relocation Center in Yuma, Arizona, where he was tragically separated from his family, which was sent to the Gila River camp in Gila, Arizona.
“He was a respected businessman, a Japanese immigrant,” said Wade, adding the Mint Grill later became a candy store.
In 1940, Ikenaga opened the Park Inn, which became “a huge hit,” but, by early 1942, just weeks after Pearl Harbor attack, it was already under new management, he said.
Wade also mentioned the story of the first Baskin-Robbins to open in Fairfield, owned and operated by sisters Mary Minakata and Elsie Nakamura from 1969 to 1990. The sisters were the daughters of first-generation Japanese immigrants, or Issei, making them Nisei, or second-generation, Japanese-Americans.
He interviewed Elsie’s mother, Jayne Nakamura, admitting that he was “hesitant to ask about Yozo Ikenaga.” Turned out, of one Ikenaga’s daughters was a best friend with Jayne’s mother. So he contacted Ikenaga’s relatives in San Francisco and gained a wealth of information.
“Ikenaga was well-respected in the Fairfield community,” he said. “He was in the Lion’s Club and also into photography and videography. He was demonized.”
Wade said the publisher limited him to 40,000 words and 100 photos, but “Lost Restaurants” came in at 48,000 words and 110 photos.
One of the “coolest things” about the journey to the book’s completion was finding out about a restaurant called Voici, a French word meaning “behold,” said Wade, smiling at the recollection.
In the book, he wrote, “When many locals behold the rundown husk of the former Voici restaurant at 1721 North Texas Street, they may have a very hard time believing that at one time it was the swankiest spot in town.” It featured white tablecloths, turquoise upholstered chair, gold-framed paintings, antique mirrors, and boasted a dress code. Today, he wrote, the space is “now a car store.”
As he did for his first book, Wade plans several author signing events in the coming weeks and months for “Lost Restaurants of Fairfield, California,” which sells for $21.99. Its official publisher’s release date is July 4.
THE SIGNING SCHEDULE
- Early bird author signing — 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., June 25, Joe’s Buffet
834 Texas St., Fairfield.
- Suisun City Fourth of July — 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Harbor Square, 700 Main St., Suisun City.
- Author signing — 6:30 to 8 p.m., July 7, Fairfield Civic Center Library, 1150 Kentucky St.,
- Author signing — 6:30 to 8 p.m., July 14, Fairfield Cordelia Library, 5050 Business Center Drive, Fairfield.
- Author signing — 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., July 30, Dave’s Giant Hamburgers, 1055 North Texas St., Fairfield.
- Fairfield Tomato & Vine Festival — 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 10 and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 11, downtown Fairfield.
- Waterfront Festival — 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 1, Harbor Square, 700 Main St., Suisun City.
- Rancho Solano Holiday Boutique — 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 20, the Clubhouse at Rancho Solano, 3250 Rancho Solano Parkway, Fairfield.