The cry that came from the kitchen at 3 p.m. last Sunday was “we’re out of banana pudding.” A few hours later came the sad news, “We ran out of chocolate pie.”
“Oh, Lord,” uttered a diner, one of more than 1,100 that chowed down for their final meal at Lebanon’s landmark Sunset Restaurant that day.
Those words were almost enough to make some grown men cry, while on the other hand the stark reality of the closing of the 62-year-old establishment produced lots of hugs, kisses and tears to loyal customers and waitresses who were overcome with emotions. Across the final four days hundreds of customers took their photos inside and outside the restaurant and many had their pictures taken with their favorite waitress.
The credit for the eatery’s success must go to Virginia and Bob Hodge, who owned the place for 54 years and four months.
“We’ve been married 61 years and been working together the whole time,” said Virginia.
With just a couple of hours to go before the doors were locked for good, Bob said the business thrived due to hard work and the fact that, “We’ve had good help and good loyal customers.”
Added Virginia, “They keep coming back and we’ve got to feed ’em.”
But no more.
“I feel happy and sad,” said Bob about closing, but both agreed it was time.
Sunset Restaurant was the Cedar City’s longest-running, same-family-owned diner. Scores of its customers would say it was because of scrumptious home-cooked meals, reasonable prices, pleasing waitresses and its family-friendly environment.
Those who have tested the menu would attest to such delights as the roast beef, pork tenderloins, broasted chicken, ham, catfish, chicken and dumplings, country fried steaks, veggies, giant salads and luscious coconut cream, praline and chocolate pies.
The original recipes, said Bob, came from “my mother and stepfather and we continued it right along.”
“We changed a few here and there,” said Virginia.
As for their delectable pies, they sold more than 500 of them across the last four days. Over the years most of them were baked by Bob and his son, Jimmy, while Virginia and daughter, Debbie, pitched in from time to time.
Wanting to give credit, Bob noted, “Jimmy cooked 34 years and helped manage the kitchen.”
Troy and Debbie Watts of Lebanon were among some of the last couples to enjoy Sunset food and hospitality last Sunday.
“I’ve been eating here since I was a child,” said Debbie. “I’ve known (waitress) Miss Jean 40 years now. I took my picture with Miss Jean out in front of the restaurant and one of all the waitresses. They’ve become like friends and family.”
Said Troy, “I told my waitress to surprise me, and she surprised me with the hamburger plate, French fries and sautéed onions. Before we sat down, I told them to hold me back two banana puddings and a piece of coconut pie.”
Fran and Franklin Grandstaff of Lebanon, who operate their own café in Pleasant Shade, dined at Sunset three of its final four days.
“He proposed to me here. We just had to come,” said Fran, a bit misty-eyed.
“This is the last time we could get a Nokes Burger,” said Franklin, who noted Sunset’s success was due to “consistency. You know what you’re gonna get when you get here, and the best desserts in town.”
Twenty-year waitress Tammy Gonzalez said, “It’s the end of an era. I waited on a man yesterday, a regular customer who comes three or four times a week, and he said, ‘What am I supposed to do now? I’m single and can’t cook. Where am I gonna get a good meal?’
“I’ve watched families come and go. I’ve waited on four generations at one table. We love our guests. We have our families at home, but this is my extended family.”
Long-time customer David Hemontoler would agree to those sentiments.
“My mama used to bring me here, and I’m 67. It’s like someone in the family has died,” he said about the setting Sunset. “It will be missed, and you can’t ask for two better people than Bob and Virginia Hodge.”
The Hodges, natives of Harlan County, Ky., plan to spend their retirement traveling, enjoying family and attending University of Kentucky athletic events.
As for the fate of the restaurant, they have been told the buyers are going to demolish the building and erect a car wash on the site.
As for Sunset food fanatics, all hope is not gone. According to Virginia, their son, Jimmy, and his stepson have been talking about opening a new restaurant near the Lebanon square.
Note: Writer Ken Beck had his first meal at Sunset in September 1974 and his final bites on Sunday night, concluding with a slice of coconut cream pie. It really could make a grown man cry.