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Gone but not forgotten, these are the Modesto restaurants we miss the most

Diners enjoy a final meal Thursday at Modesto’s Sundial Lodge Restaurant, which closed its doors for the last time July 31, 1998.
Diners enjoy a final meal Thursday at Modesto’s Sundial Lodge Restaurant, which closed its doors for the last time July 31, 1998. Modesto Bee

With two of Modesto’s longtime restaurants — Lee’s Chinese Kitchen and Gervosoni’s — out of commission for the time being, one’s appetites drift to other area favorites now gone for good.

While both Lee’s and Gervosoni’s have vowed to return, and iconic Modesto micro-brewery St. Stan’s is now back, let’s tip the ghosts of servers past at these once iconic and beloved Modesto eateries that have closed their kitchens for good. Many lasted for decades. Most were locally owned (or at very least regional franchises). And all of them left us with warm, happy, full-belly feelings. A look at 15 of the most missed restaurants in the city’s history over the years.

Burge’s Drive-In: Immortalized by native son George Lucas in his seminal coming-of-age flick “American Graffiti” as Mel’s Drive-In, the diner was a must-stop for cruisers of the era. The drive-in had distinctive neon and large lettering and sat at Ninth and O streets. It opened in 1947 and closed in 1967. But its memory lives on with the annual Graffiti Summer classic car parade through downtown Modesto.

Carmen’s Restaurant: Once a McHenry Village institution, the Mexican restaurant was a favorite for locals for close to 40 years. Founder Cip Duran opened the place in 1954, naming it after his mother; his nephew Rene San Roman took over in 1984. It also became home to live comedy and dinner theater shows in later years. The eatery closed in 1993 after a prolonged bankruptcy.

Lotus Restaurant: The Chinese restaurant sat for more than four decades on the corner of J and 9th streets. Opened in 1955, it served up Chinese favorites and its egg foo young was particularly loved. The restaurant’s owner and Chinese community leader, Shu-Ching Chu, was tragically killed in a head-on collision on Highway 132 in 1999. The other driver, who had been trying to pass another vehicle, was convicted of misdemeanor charges in 2001. Skewers Kabob House has occupied the space since, but plans a move to the old St. Stan’s Brewery building soon.

El Faro: Opened in December 1954 in what was then the outskirts of Modesto on McHenry Avenue, El Faro grew to become one of the town’s most beloved Mexican restaurants. Situated just south of Orangeburg Avenue it was instantly recognizable for its cutout of a man in a hat, holding his hands out flat on its door. It closed briefly and was reopened with a new owner in 2007, but ultimately shuttered for good about three years later.

Sundial Restaurant and Lodge: For more than four decades, this McHenry Avenue landmark was the place for power lunches and dinners. The elegant dining spot actually had its roots in downtown Modesto when founders Gus and Nora Galas opened up inside the old Hotel Covell in 1946. In 1955 the new lodge and restaurant was built on McHenry and Helen avenues and renamed. It remained in the Galas family until its closure in 1998. Since then it has been a series of retirement and elder care homes and is now the Stacie’s Chalet Assisted Living & Memory Care Community.

Shakey’s Pizza Parlor: Brothers Bob and Glen Holm brought the Sacramento-based Shakey’s Pizza franchise to Modesto in 1963. The local chain was known for its honky-tonk, ragtime piano and banjo music and old-time movies. Over the years the family opened a second Shakey’s on Yosemite Avenue and others in Fairfield and Stockton. The original Modesto Shakey’s started at 2320 McHenry Ave. (now Crawfish Noodle & Grill) and in 1980 moved about a mile north to 3125 McHenry Ave. (now Taqueria Dos Compadres). It closed for good in 2000.

Cote D’Oro: In 1980, Holiday Magazine named this distinctive, turreted Yosemite Boulevard restaurant one of the Top 100 in the United States. The French and Italian eatery was a favorite of E.&J. Gallo Winery executives, including its founders Ernest and Julio. The 88-year-old castle-like building also sat above a secret tunnel which was used during Prohibition era which connected to a nearby speakeasy (now Eagles Hall). Cote D’Oro operated in the space from 1964 until 1987, then became home to Alfonso’s El Castillo Mexican until 2006. In 2013 the site was leveled to make way for a Dollar General Store.

Smoky’s: Opened in 1968, Smoky’s was one of Modesto’s signature hamburger joints for decades. Over the years the restaurant expanded and opened Smoky’s Pub and Grill at Coffee and Floyd and even a Smoky’s at the Green at Creekside Golf Course. But Smoky’s served its last burger and fries in 2003 when the remaining McHenry and Coffee locations closed. The McHenry spot was home to Bleachers Grill and Rockin B’s Burger Co. afterward, which have both shuttered. It now houses Valley Meal Prep.

Brawley’s Restaurant: Owned by Central Valley businessman Odell Brawley, the restaurant was part of an area chain that extended to Oakdale, Manteca, Madera, Sonora, Placerville and Sacramento. The Modesto site on McHenry Avenue north of Orangeburg Avenue opened in 1972. It closed in 1992 when it became Eppie’s Restaurants. And, yes, it was started by the same owner of the former Brawley’s RV center in Modesto.

The Vintage Restaurant: Opened in downtown Modesto in 1973, The Vintage (as its fans knew it) was a downtown Modesto staple. It specialized in serving Kansas-bred steaks (an archived Modesto Bee add showed you could get a lobster and sirloin dinner for only $8.50 in 1974). It also had live entertainment and cocktails. It closed in the mid-1980s and the now-defunct Modesto Civic Theatre moved into its 1135 11th St. location in the early 1990s.

Farmer’s Catfish House: This Wood Colony favorite was opened by Tom and Dolores Watkins in 1980. Patrons loved their catfish, of course, and fresh-made hush puppie. The down-home feel carried through to the drinks, which were served in mason jars. After 35 years of running the family restaurant, the Watkinses closed shop in October 2016.

Hazel’s Elegant Dining: Modesto’s signature fancy white-tablecloth restaurant for 25 years, the fine dining establishment was the site of countless anniversary and prom date dinners. The uninitiated were always a tad surprised when the well-dressed waiters draped their dinner napkin over their laps for them to start their multicourse meal. Opened in 1985, it closed for good in 2009. (The “since 1925” date on the restaurant’s sign referred to the birthdate of its namesake, Hazel Saylor.) Surla’s moved into its 431 12th St. space later that year and has been open since.

Mallard’s Restaurant: Prolific Modesto entrepreneur Dan Costa opened Mallard’s on the corner of McHenry and Briggsmore avenues in 1986. The restaurant was so successful that in 1991 it expanded to a Stockton location and 1992 launched the offshoot Mallard’s Food Products which sold its pastas, sauces and soups in supermarkets. The Modesto site also became a favorite and much-missed brunch spot for many. In 2005 Costa sold the restaurant and it closed two years later in 2007. The building was demolished in 2009 to make way for the current CVS drugstore.

Benni’s Italian: The restaurant on Yosemite Avenue was part of a late ’80s, early ’90s high-end restaurant row in the area. Opened in the site of an old Foster Freeze in 1987, the eatery was founded by brothers Christopher and Daniel Bonora and named after their father. After Benni’s closed in the mid-’90s Christopher Bonora went on to own Christopaolo’s in Ripon and Oceana Bar & Grill in downtown Modesto. Both have since closed as well.

R.J. Sweetwater’s: Opened in the mid-1980s, R.J. Sweetwater’s was a downtown mainstay before the area’s redevelopment and revival in the late 1990s, early 2000s. If newsroom folks recall correctly, it had an excellent spinach salad. It was open for 16 years before closing in 2002. The building at the corner of 9th and K streets has since burned down.

So, is your favorite on the list? What other Modesto eateries do you miss? Who would you love to make a comeback?

Marijke Rowland: 209-578-2284, @marijkerowland

Marijke Rowland writes about new business, restaurant and retail developments. She has been with The Modesto Bee since 1997 covering a variety of topics including arts and entertainment. Her Business Beat column runs midweek and Sundays. And it’s pronounced Mar-eye-ke.
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