Ralph Campbell, 80, has eaten regularly at the Frisco Shop since it opened in 1953 at Koenig Lane and Burnet Road. On Thursday, he lunched at the casual diner with his wife, granddaughter and three great-granddaughters, probably for the last time, since the Frisco, now at its second location at 6801 Burnet Road, will close its doors for good July 29.
“I like the chopped steak with beans and cole slaw,” said Campbell, who worked at the Texas Crushed Stone quarry — a little more than a mile to the west — for 47 years, but now lives in Georgetown, where the limestone company moved. “My father worked there, and my son worked there. We lived in a little house right above the quarry.”
Austin will lose a piece of its dining history later this month when the Frisco closes, for a combination of reasons that will sound familiar to observers of Austin and its restaurant scene.
“I don’t want to complain, because everybody is going through the same thing,” said R. Harry Akin, attorney and nephew of the Frisco founder, the late Mayor Harry Akin. “First there’s the competition. It seems like a new restaurant opens every week, most of them on Burnet Road. Then there’s the tight labor market, rising costs due to property taxes — which have more than doubled in the past four years and which we pay along with our rent — as well as upgrades to this building, which we must keep up, too.”
While Burnet Road now hosts an array of retro hamburger, taco and chicken stops that echo the roadhouse look of the Frisco, the growing city’s newer residents did not take up one of the last true 1950s-era hangouts on the strip.
“Demographics are changing,” said Harry’s wife and business partner, Julia Akin, who also works at her husband’s law office in Elgin. “There’s been a whole revolution in types of food, delivery of food, making and selling of food. Going to a restaurant will always be popular, but it is no longer necessary.”
Julia and R. Harry purchased the Frisco in 1994 from the mayor’s widow, Lela Jane Akin Tinstman, on the condition that Lawrence Baker, the spot’s longtime manager, join them.
Known for comfort food such as beef tips, chicken-fried steak, chicken and dumplings, and icebox pie, the Frisco Shop was part of the Night Hawk chain, which Akin, mayor of Austin from 1967 to 1969, started in 1932 when he opened the first Night Hawk at Riverside Drive and Congress Avenue.
The Frisco Shop, which in 2008 moved into a former Curra’s Grill location when the first site was demolished to make way for a Walgreens, was the last of that storied chain.
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At the company’s peak, in the 1970s, seven Night Hawk restaurants operated in Texas — four in Austin, two in San Antonio and one in Houston. The eateries also spawned a popular line of frozen dinner products, which was sold off in the 1980s.
Employees were allowed to lend the place some Austin character, and several made their careers there. Among the more recent hires, host Darrel Webber greets customers wearing an array of garlands and hats.
“The VICs — very important customers — make this place special,” Webber said Thursday before the big lunch rush. “They call me the flower man or the butterfly man. Friday is Western Day, so I wear collar studs and a bolo tie. I’m going to miss my holiday hats.”
As word got out Thursday that the Frisco was closing, longtime customers jammed the doorways. One group, members of the Austin High Class of ’52, had a table reserved.
“We’ve been meeting every Thursday for 45 years,” said Carol Sikes. “First at the original Nau’s Drugstore on San Gabriel Street, then the one on West Lynn Street. After that, we found a new home here. We’ll be out on the streets now.”
“I have never gotten as many emails as in the last hour,” said friend Louann Atkins Temple, whose favorite dishes include the Frisco burger, fried catfish and meatloaf. “I’ve been coming since I was a baby with my mother, father and brother. My husband and I eat here every Sunday. Everybody is heartbroken.”
Class of ’52 tablemates Alison Kimberlin, Jo Betsy Szebehely and Nancy Rodman listed the milkshakes, chopped steak, chicken strips and burgers among their preferences.
In addition to being dining staples for decades, the Frisco Shop and the Night Hawk played important roles in the sociopolitical history of Austin. Akin was one of the first white restaurateurs to serve black customers. He was invited by President John F. Kennedy to serve on a business group seeking solutions to segregation, and he urged the Austin City Council to adopt desegregation policies during the crucial years of 1963 to 1965.
“He was a hero to me,” former Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton told the Statesman in 2008 when the new Frisco Shop location opened. “Harry was open and accessible to all, which is what Austin is all about. He was a visionary and with the times.”
R. Harry worked at the Frisco while a student and later served as the president of Night Hawk Restaurants while Uncle Harry was mayor.
“The Frisco Shop is part of my DNA,” R. Harry said. “I grew up on a farm on Burnet Road, riding my bicycle by the restaurant on a regular basis. I remember buying an order of french fries for 15 cents. I want to express appreciation to the people of Austin for their loyal support of the Frisco Shop over the period of its 65-year existence.”
American-Statesman staff writer Matthew Odam contributed to this report.