The local gentry were all atwitter when, on the southwest corner of South Virginia and Gentry Way arose a rough-hewn timber building with a rusty corrugated iron penstock ten feet in diameter beneath a wooden water tower, framing the entrance to a building that appeared to be a hundred years old and belonging better in Norden on Donner Summit or along the Carson & Colorado line below Mt. Whitney. Entering through that giant iron duct was a dining room, and another and another – timber walls and ceiling, industrial lanterns over the tables, strap iron hinges, brake levers, glowing red and green switch lights and brass-faced gauges. Servers in what approximated railroad garb, engineers’ hats and men in conductor livery. Sort of dark, a neat place for a burger and beer.
“What the heck are they building?” asked the townsfolk. “It looks like a crash pad for hobos. Like a Hobo Junction!” And that’s exactly what it was – Hobo Junction – a new watering hole on South Virginia, joining Marie Callender’s a block to the south and Posey Butterfield’s – to later become the Rapscallion in 1977 – on Wells Avenue. On September 8th of 1974 the Junction’s doors were opened and it immediately joined the ranks of places to dine or hang out after work. A nice meeting room to the north received a lot of use from many groups seeking a new place with some personality, and the Hobo had it. (The sobriquet “hobo,” by the way, might be derived from Hoboken, New Jersey, said by some to be traditional home for these gentlemen of the ribbons of steel.)
But one night the train departed Virginia and Gentry and went chugging off into the night, a six-wheel driver pulling a hundred coaches from end to end, and the Hobo’s heavy timber door was padlocked. My recollection is that it was sort of abrupt and a few Toastmasters’ and Rotary Clubs were left scrambling for a place to meet. But fear not, for more men descended on the Hobo’s shell, stripped the water tank, yanked off the pipe that framed the doorway and generally took the rugged building into the 20th Century. Repainted, re-signed and looking pretty good.
Some newer doors swung open in 1979, and we congregated in a brighter main room, with the trappings of early railroading gonzo and replaced by what one might find in a post-war aircraft hangar – old wooden propellers on the walls, maps, runway beacons, oil cans with products plainly for aircraft engines, ashtrays (remember them?) crafted from aircraft engine pistons, and pictures, pictures, pictures – of cool old airplanes.
We went from a train station to a hangar. And why a hangar, you ask? Well, it’s really simple – a bunch of retired Flying Tiger pilots – the combat pilots, not the cargo guys that came later – were sitting around LAX as the story goes and said, “Why, shucks, we could open a restaurant, how tough could that be?” And they did open, starting in about 1962, a number of joints that grew to 40 in their heyday, serving seafood as their specialty. What did these retired Tiger pilots name them? Well, “Hungry Tiger,” of course. And I’m not sure that they said “shucks” but this is a family column.
And the fine diners of Reno welcomed the Hungry Tiger, as they did the Hobo Junction. The place thrived, as I recall more for lunch and dinner than breakfast. But it was a good restaurant, flying high on our list.
But – as so many restaurants and airmen do, the men of the Flying Tigers came in high, hot, and overshot. The chain started running rough and they feathered a few non-producing engines, Reno’s being one of them, and in 1985 declared a MayDay = Emergency in Progress! – and the Hungry Tiger on South Virginia was parked, chocked and dark. Too bad; like so many others – Houlihan’s and Victoria Station come to mind, great food but doomed to my Faded Menus list by bum management.
So – the Hobo and the Tiger sat wanting a new operation, and in what I think was 1986 – accounts vary – Tim, Mike and Shaun Wiltshire sprinkled stardust from the Emerald Isle onto the darkened building, and through magic a leprechaun in a green suit appeared in the entry lobby playing the Old Songs on a grand piano, and Famous Murphy’s Oyster Bar & Grill was born. I can’t say enough good about the Murph – great food and salad bar, nice people helping us out, and a downstairs lounge that raised the bar on happy hours in this burg as no other public house has ever done. And it thrived for 20 years, coming as close as any restaurant has ever come in our town to a singular local favorite.
But as all Irish songs must, it ended on a low key. I don’t know what happened – and wouldn’t ask Mike if I saw him – but the leprechaun at the baby grand joined the loco engineer in the Hobo and the hot stick in the Tiger, and all disappeared down Virginia Street. That great old building with so many memories for all of us, was again dark. Were I a betting man and permitted to scribe an opinion on these pages, I’d say that it was partially doomed by an architectural element that the Wiltshires inherited and had to make the best of – it suffered from an entry door at the top of a long uphill ramp, far removed from the parking lot, and a reception lobby with a half-flight of stairs down to the main dining room to the north or the classy lounge to the south. (It also had an entry, a half-flight up to the parking area.) That arrangement puzzled me from the day the Hobo opened.
But all that speculation now written, the best I can say, and I think the Gazoo readers join me, is, thanks to the Wiltshires for a score of years of good food, spirits and friendship. And the column now ends with these simple words: Thanks for reading!
Text © RGJ April 2015
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