“I realized very early the power of food to evoke memory, to bring people together, to transport you to other places…”—Jose Andres Puerta
Driving along Highway 31 the other day past the old Pinocchio’s Drive In, now an Enterprise Rent-A-Car outlet, brought back a nostalgic tidal wave of fond memories of the simple youthful gustatory delights of frosted glass mugs of homemade root beer, golden crinkle-cut French fries, and quarter-pound char-grilled “World’s Best Hamburgers” against a colorful backdrop of Disney-esque wall paintings of Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, Lampwick, Monstro, Honest John, Stromboli, Figaro, Cleo and the Blue Fairy.
The décor at Pinocchio’s seemed hokey at the time given my teenage sensibilities back in the day, but the childish design aesthetics were always trumped by the food, which also included other personal favorites including the spicy and juicy Italian bombers, served with a complimentary side of piquant pepperoncini, and hand-dipped malts.
The 1976 culinary brainchild of the father-and-son team of Leo and Lawrence Perfetto, by 1987 there were three Pinocchio’s offering up car hop and table service around Racine — the flagship “North” location at 1824 Douglas Ave., the “West” drive-in, opened at 1101 S. Green Bay Road in 1978, and the “South” location added at 2207 Lathrop Ave. in 1987.
Starting with the 1998 closure of the flagship Pinocchio’s at Douglas Avenue and Rapids Drive, Pinocchio’s closed its final location, on Highway 31, in 2007.
Pinocchio’s may now be gone but it’s certainly not forgotten, thanks to the memories rekindled by the enduring $1 souvenir Pinocchio’s root beer mug in my kitchen, a special 1978 grand opening offer at the Highway 31 drive-in depicting the restaurant’s once familiar logo — a walking, elf-shoed Pinocchio carrying a root beer and a hamburger.
Quaff a root beer outta that glass in 2020 and you can still almost taste Pinocchio’s ketchup, mustard, pickle and grilled onion-topped burgers. Like Karen Carpenter once famously sang, it’s like yesterday once more.
Sunny’s was a family favorite
Another popular favorite of the Johnson Family back in the day was Michael Hammes and John Kopulos’ old Sunny’s Café and Beer Garden in the old Dog ‘n Suds drive-in at 3458 Rapids Drive in Racine, a short drive west of Horlick High School and Rapids Plaza.
I remember being particularly fond of the $2.25 gyros, $2.50 reubens, $1.75 patty melts, $1.85 Italian sausage bombers with mozzarella, and dinnertime $5.95 full rack of hickory barbecued ribs.
In the days when The Journal Times offered a “Dining Out” restaurant critic column critiquing area restaurants, “warm, cozy” Sunny’s earned kudos from reviewer Lori Bergstrom in the Dec. 6, 1984 edition for its “surprisingly reasonable” prices, attentive service, “handsome décor and … generous helpings of food.” Even after Bergstrom and her dining companion had admittedly “made pigs of ourselves” in the pursuit of journalistic truth, the total bill came to $27.82, inclusive of beer, wine, coffee and “more food than we could eat,” including multiple appetizers and dinners to “get a good sampling” of Sunny’s wide-ranging menu.
Offering “refreshing” indoor year-round seating in the Lawrence J. Litzau-designed dining room replete with soft private booths, etched glass, dark oak woodwork, modern carpeting, abundant live greenery and an eye-catching teal, blue and green color scheme, Sunny’s also offered a fenced-in “extra treat … European touch” outdoor beer garden during the warm weather months under Dog ‘n Suds’ old drive-in canopy, a place where diners could enjoy a frothy 90-cent PBR and a $5.25 full rack of hickory barbecued ribs against the scenic backdrop of AMC Pacers and Chevy Chevettes. Hey, for the 1970s in Racine, it was darn cosmopolitan.
A read through Sunny’s old souvenir paper menu from those days evokes yearning for the prices of yore, when dining out didn’t cost an arm, leg and your first-born — $1 Chicago-style hot dogs, $1.95 subs, $1.50 burgers, 45-cent Cokes, 95-cent super-thick shakes, $2.95 fried chicken dinners, $4.95 shis-ka-bobs, $1.99 all-you-can-eat salad bar, 65-cent cups of soup, and 95-cent slices of New York cheesecake.
Andrea’s was favorite longtime downtown fixture
Another family favorite was Andrea’s Restaurant on the northeast corner of Seventh Street and Wisconsin Avenue, kitty-corner from the Racine County Courthouse and a literal stone’s throw from fondly-remembered legacy high-end home furnishing Porter Furniture Co. (1857-2010), widely known simply as “Porter’s of Racine.”
Opened in April 1978 at 623 Wisconsin Ave., 136-seat Andrea’s was opened by restaurateur Tom Vasiliou and two other partners, including Paul Bouraxis. The restaurant was named after Bouraxis’ 2-year-old son. Over the ensuing years, Vasiliou bought out his partners.
Andrea’s operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, catering to a busy clientele heavy on downtown workers, lawyers, politicians, judges and sheriff’s deputies as likely THE safest eatery downtown, even at three in the morning.
Andrea’s was also a favorite dining destination for beloved Gilmore Junior High School — yeah, I’m dating myself — charter instrumental and vocal music teachers Merritt H. (1923-2011) and Christine (1930-2000) Bissell.
For my family, Andrea’s was a largely dinner destination and, like clockwork, “Mr. and Mrs. B” could invariably be spied having dinner in their regular booth at Andrea’s. As a kid, seeing teachers outside of school was about as close to celebrity stardom as you could get in 1970’s Racine, sort of like catching a glance of Humphrey Bogart or Lauren Bacall dining at Sardi’s in New York. The Bissells were there so regularly, I began to think they lived there when they weren’t at Gilmore, residing in a back room or perhaps upstairs of the restaurant and taking their meals in Andrea’s dining room.
A breakfast anytime place, breakfasts back in the day could be had at Andrea’s for $3-$6, while the restaurant’s extensive menu of 24 lunch sandwiches and sandwich combos could be had for under $4. Dinners, including steaks, Italian dishes, pork entrees and fried chicken dinners, were largely priced under $6.
The Journal Times’ Bergstrom, working night duty a few blocks south on Wisconsin on Dec. 29, 1984, was a fan of Andrea’s, calling it a “place you can count on” restaurant as a “comfortable, convenient and reliable spot downtown.”
Personally being partial to Andrea’s gyros sandwich and Athenian salad combo, and the reuben combination plate with fries and coleslaw, I did — and still — concur with Bergstrom’s review of the restaurant.
With changing times, 24-hour hour service ended in 1993, with hours shortened and dinners dropped.
Andrea’s was little changed when it closed on July 13, 2000, offering the same mahogany-hued booths and yellow tables from the restaurant’s April 10, 1978 debut.
Two decades later, a gutted Andrea’s still sits vacant awaiting redevelopment, a sad reminder of a bygone era in Downtown Racine dining history.
Special occasions at Nino’s
A few restaurants were reserved for family special occasion outings to mark birthdays, holidays and significant life events.
Most fondly remembered is the old Nino’s Steak Round Up at 6825 Washington Ave. in Mount Pleasant, one link in a Milwaukee-based chain of 38 steakhouses that one prolifically dotted the major cities of Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa. Opened in December 1973 and managed by Frank Gigliotti, I fondly remember Nino’s for its $6.50 charcoal-broiled corn-fed steer steaks and $6.25 barbecued ribs, foil-wrapped potatoes, and a 75-cent melted gruyere-topped French onion soup that remains unmatched nine years after the 2011 demise of the last-surviving Nino’s in Sheboygan.
The kitsch décor at Nino’s, heavy on steer horns and a bevy of wagon wheels, was experientially augmented by a newsprint newspaper menu, The Epitaph, which showcased menu specials and headline feature stories of “Wild West” lore.
A particular treat at Nino’s, if the special occasion outing happened to fall on a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday, was the “no cover” opportunity to hear WRJN afternoon drive disk jockey Raoul C. “Frenchy” Bouton, a popular Racine, Kenosha and Walworth County bandleader, accordionist and organ balladeer, performing live, crooning a comfort music mix of old standards ranging from “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to “Over the Rainbow.”
Kenosha-born Bouton, who sparked “Boutonmania” locally with his longtime standing gig performances at Nino’s, Kilbourn Gardens and downtown’s Racine Motor Inn, Oak Chalet and The Rafters in Oak Creek, Burlington’s Plush Horse Lounge, and Frenchy’s Cocktail Lounge and Supper Club in Downtown Kenosha, achieved a bit of fame recording for RCA Victor with Bill Haley and The Comets before striking off with his own trio for record label MCA.
And I thought Mr. and Mrs. Bissell were famous?!