PANAMA CITY — Stuffy’s Cafe has set up shop on Harrison Avenue in good company.
Not far from the historic downtown district, the old-fashioned diner is between the Tally-Ho Drive In and Dan-D-Donuts & Deli.
“We have the ’50s retro look,” said manager Dartona Washam, aka “Chef D.” “It fits the area.”
It’s not just the red-and-white-checkered floors or Elvis memorabilia on the walls, but it’s also the good feeling you get from the staff that will have you reminiscing about the good ol’ days — even if you’ve only heard about them. Next door to Bay High, Stuffy’s also has such modern comforts as free WiFi, while tunes from the ’50s play.
“I don’t know if the younger kids appreciate this as much, but we have older customers who remember going to a place just like this,” said owner Dwayne Martin, who sees students as a “plus.”
An old-fashioned popcorn machine cranks out fresh popcorn, while a milkshake machine should be serving up all eight flavors — chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, cookies & cream, butter pecan and mint chocolate — by the weekend.
You can find Dwayne helping out around the restaurant — in the kitchen or sweeping floors in his uniform, a short-sleeved crisp white button-down shirt tucked into khaki pants with a black belt, black bow tie and shiny black shoes and a soda jerk hat. You also will feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you see the straight-forward menu with throw-back prices. Nothing on the menu is more than $6.
“We’re able to do that, because I know what food cost is,” Dartona said, wearing his black chef coat and pants. “We are not trying to hurt the public. We understand what the economy has done to us and are trying to keep prices down.”
That heart goes into the food and out to the customers for breakfast and lunch, from French toast, buttermilk pancakes and omelets to sandwiches, burgers, loaded salads and baskets.
“A lot of items on the menu are in-house recipes, everything made from scratch, down to the chicken tenders,” said Dartona, who hand breads the pieces of chicken. “We’ve been selling a lot of the Philly-style cheeseteaks and fried shrimp.”
Dartona showed me the thin slices of meat used for the cheesesteak, as employee Kelmon Cheesebro sliced the top and bottom round steak on the professional stainless meat slicer.
“We slice it fresh every day,” Dartona said. “Then we chop it, add bell peppers, portabello mushrooms, onions, and I use a Swiss cheese.”
Lunch combos include a sandwich, fries and a drink for $5.99.
One bite of the warm, tender cheesesteak with creamy cheese on the soft bread, and I knew why this was a best-seller.
“Burgers sell good too, hand-pattied,” Dwayne said.
Simple, good food is another reason the café, which opened Jan. 21, already has its regulars.
While I was scooping up the last bites of cheesesteak with my fries, a woman walked in — “You got my cheesesteak, right?” she asked Dartona, who gave her a shout out from the kitchen.
“We love the public. We love the kids. We don’t lose customers. Everybody feels like they’re home,” said Dartona, who also likes the addictive corn sweet nuggets and loaded fries with chili, onions and cheese. “I have a passion for the food — love it and to see expressions on customers’ faces.”
Though I came in hungry Monday, I sure didn’t leave that way, and I was back with a friend on Tuesday.
We shared a burger and an Italian Sub, which was so large I had to remove the tomato and onion to get it to close. The cheeseburger also was huge on a grilled soft roll, topped with white cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles. Juicy, with a nice, smokey flavor, I didn’t need any condiments. Next time, I’ll share the cheeseburger and cheesesteak — for research purposes, of course, because I still can’t decide which is my favorite. Then, maybe I can save room for the carrot cake with cream-cheese frosting.
“We are going to have an extensive dinner menu in the next few weeks, plating up foods,” Dartona said. “Dinner is going in the direction of the music you hear now, bring everybody back into the ’50s.”
The café is closed Sundays, when you can find Dwayne at Free Spirit.
“We will be helping homeless on Sundays, opening our doors just for them,” Dartona said. “We feed ’em now — anybody who comes in and says they’re hungry.”
The 52-seat capacity restaurant has five booths and five tables, and Dwayne plans to fill it up.
“We are going to go down to the (Panama City Rescue) Mission and invite 52 the first time,” said Dwayne, who first visited Panama City from New Jersey in 1995 to help with clean-up from Hurricane Opal.
Where: 1302 Harrison Ave., Panama City
Hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Details: (850) 215-1771