Customer Jeff Morris, 28, steps from an elevator that's carried him above the treetops and up the side of a bluff to the entrance of Caveman Bar-BQ & Steak House in Richland, Mo. (pop. 1,805). "It's not like anything I've ever seen," says Morris, of Washington, D.C., as he gets his first glimpse at the red-carpeted eatery housed inside a cave. "It's amazing!"
The restaurant, located 40 feet above a gravel road and 120 feet deep into Turkey Ridge Mountain, has limestone walls that were creviced and pitted by an ancient river, while the two-level dining room inside was built by owners Dave and Connie Hughes.
The unusual eatery's genesis began in 1984, when the Hugheses retired from farming in Norwood, Mo. (pop. 552), and bought a home and land where Dave could fish and putter around.
"About 10 minutes after we took possession, a neighbor told us about a cave that had been a dance hall in the 1920s," recalls Dave, 70. "I put the Jeep up against the cliff, leaned a ladder on top of it, and shined a flashlight into the 40-foot opening. I told Connie, 'Honey, we could build a restaurant up here.' She just about fell over laughing."
Although they had no experience in the restaurant business, the Hugheses thought it was worth trying. Over the next several years, they widened the cave to 70 feet by jackhammering 160 tons of rubble, shoveling out the red Missouri clay one wheelbarrow at a time. Working many nights until midnight, they washed down the walls with fire hoses, dusted the cracks with toothbrushes, and leveled the floor with 5 inches of concrete. "I couldn't leave it alone," Dave says. "I'd wake up nights thinking about it."
"We had a lot of problems you wouldn't have in a regular building," says Connie, 67. "Like figuring out how to put in a dehumidifier."
Despite Dave cracking his ribs, splitting open his head and breaking his arm while transforming the cave into a restaurant, it inevitably opened on Aug. 19, 1994.
Today, the eatery is open Wednesday to Sunday from May to November and has become a popular tourist attraction, with seating for up to 200.
Lit by chandeliers and translucent globes that Dave fashioned from tractor axles and horseshoes, the cavern contains two-dozen tables and booths alongside fish pools that catch groundwater seeping from the cave's ceiling. Mounted wildlife exhibits, such as a raccoon, a wild turkey and a cougar, perch along the walls' ledges and peer out of the rock.
"Everywhere you look, you see something new," says customer Derek Meader, 28, of Washington, D.C. While the eatery is famous for its location, patrons also enjoy the house specialty: barbecued ribs. "My husband and I have been going there since it opened," says Gretchen Brown, of Lebanon, Mo. "We like good ribs."
"It has good food and good people running it," says Trevor Hughes, 65, of Merritt Island, Fla. The owners greet every customer with a smile. Dave welcomes patrons in the parking lot and chauffeurs them up a winding dirt road in his van to the elevator that transports them to the entrance. Connie welcomes customers at the cave's entrance and manages the register and staff of four.
"When they come out of the elevator, their eyes get really big," Connie says. "They think it's just wonderful. We really enjoy showing it to people."
For directions and information, call (573) 765-4554.
Seated in the dining room under the 70-foot wing of a Boeing KC-97 or in a booth inside the air tanker's fuselage, customers at Solo's Restaurant in Colorado Springs, Colo., can eat a steak dinner and savor a bit of aviation history all at the same time.
Creating an airplane restaurant has been a dream of Steve Kanatzar since he started in the restaurant business in 1978.
"This was a longtime dream of mine," says Kanatzar, 55, a pilot and restaurateur. "The problem was finding the right airplane and a location at the same time."
Over the years, he investigated cargo planes and B-52s, but their fuselages proved too narrow. Eventually he found a 1953 Boeing KC-97, which originally was used to transport tanks and troops, and to refuel planes in midair. Purchasing the plane in 2001 from the National Guard at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas, Kanatzar had it disassembled and hauled to Colorado Springs in eight semitrailers. He bought a 6,400-square-foot building, incorporating one wing and a propeller of the plane inside the building. Open since May 2002, the restaurant's traditional dining room seats 230, while the converted fuselage's booths can accommodate 42 more diners.
"Anyone interested in aviation would like this place," says customer Brian Duffy, a former NASA astronaut who flew four space missions.
Besides the plane itself, models of the Red Baron's biplane, jet fighters and a B-17 hang from the ceiling. Airplane movies play on television sets, while autographed photos of plane crews, Vietnam prisoners of war and astronauts fill the walls.
Solo's star attraction, however, is the KC-97 cockpit. "It's fun to look at the really old instruments," Duffy says. "It really is a piece of history."
Patrons can climb into the pilot's seat, and kids often pretend to fly around the world. Occasionally Kanatzar meets someone who actually flew or worked on KC-97s. "They've all got different stories to tell."
For more information, visit www.solosrestaurant.com or call (719) 570-7656.
Before taking their seat inside a renovated jail cell at the Jail House Restaurant in Owego, N.Y. (pop. 3,911), customers often pose for mug shots next to a height chart, or walk into an unaltered jail cell that housed Tioga County prisoners from 1910 to 1996.
"Some people will step inside," says server Loreen Maley, of the jail cell with a cot still anchored to the wall. "But then they say, 'Nope, I don't want to do that. Not me.'"
Each of the restaurant's other 10 jail cells, however, has had its cots, sink and toilet removed and replaced with a table and chairs to accommodate five diners. Dining tables also line the walls where guards once patrolled.
"It's a favorite place for my children and I to go for dinner," says Diana Chandler, 29, mother of a 3- and a 7-year-old. "We live close by. When it snows I put them on the sled and pull it to The Jail House. It's a one-of-a-kind place."
Chris Nowak, of Vestal, N.Y. (pop. 26,535), opened the restaurant in August 2007 on the heels of two previous owners. In the food business since he was 16, Nowak, 41, grabbed the opportunity to buy the eatery. "The building was the coolest, most unique place," says Nowak, who noticed a For Sale sign as he drove past the building last year. "There were bars on the windows."
The building came with a plaque designating it a historic site and a reputation for being haunted by "George," a convicted murderer who was hung in the courthouse square in 1880. More attention, however, goes to the menu, which includes a popular chicken quesadilla and a seafood bisque that Nowak, who calls himself "The Warden," says people call ahead to reserve.
For more information, call (607) 223-4210.