The man in overalls filling his plate along the buffet line approached the lady wearing an apron.
“Is that sweet potato pie?” asked the man.
“Yep, it is,” said the lady. “I put in some blueberries and blackberries, too.”
The man was having lunch at the all-you-can-eat buffet at VFW Post 577. The lady was Debbie Higgs, known primarily for operating Route 66 Diner in various locations over almost two decades.
Higgs said she has been part of the VFW family for at least 15 years.
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“Good people,” she said.
The VFW offers lunch buffets Wednesday and Thursday, a breakfast buffet Saturday and a just-added brunch buffet Sunday. It also will open a six-day-a-week coffee shop beginning Saturday, June 15.
The VFW buffets are unique in a number of ways. No cashier. You put your $7 cash donation (more if you wish) in a jar behind the buffet line. You make your own change, if needed. No checks or credit cards.
You dish up your own food and take a seat in a folding chair at one of the folding tables. You might be sitting next to a law officer, a postal employee, a military veteran, a firefighter, a construction worker or a businessperson. Everyone is welcome.
We ran into friends Donna Prigmore and Mel Cornshucker, longtime business partners at the Brady Artists Studio in the Tulsa Arts District, who dine there regularly.
When finished eating, you bus your own dirty dishes, of course.
Did I mention it is all-you-can-eat for $7?
The food has home-cooked flavor as much as food can that isn’t actually cooked at home. The buffet line has a few staples, but many of the choices can change daily.
“I just do my old Route 66 Diner stuff,” Higgs said. “I usually cook whatever I’m hungry for that day.”
Some items you can count on include house-made bread, ham-hock beans, green beans, cinnamon rolls, a small salad bar and desserts.
Among the selections I saw on two recent visits were chicken stir-fry, cabbage cooked with a ham bone, pasta salad, eggplant and onions, chili, turkey meatballs in gravy, boneless fried chicken with cream gravy, cucumber salad, potato salad, collard greens, lemon pie, corn, pork roast with potatoes, fry bread, fresh fruit, sweet potato pie, chocolate muffins, doughnuts and gingerbread pudding.
All of it is prepared by Higgs and a nephew, Lucas Stephens.
“My kids and my nieces and nephews all worked at the diners,” Higgs said. “Lucas is the last of that generation to work with me.”
I tried to get a little taste of almost everything. I particularly liked the lightly breaded boneless chicken and gravy, the ham-hock beans and cabbage, the chili with beans that left a little heat on the back of the throat, the fresh-baked bread, the tender pork roast and lemon pie.
I am not the world’s biggest fan of collard greens, but apparently, it has its fans.
“It’s kind of surprising, but every time I make collard greens, at least 10 people come up and thank me,” Higgs said.
She said she will ask for a larger donation, probably $12, for the Sunday brunches.
“It will have fish and some pricier items,” she said. “I also have a heart-shaped waffle iron like one I had at Little Diner.”
What she calls Little Diner was her first Route 66 Diner location, a tiny place near 11th Street and Delaware Avenue, which opened in 1988. Two years later, Higgs added a second diner at Second Street and Elgin Avenue, where Dilly Diner is now.
“I had them both for about three-and-a-half years before the gas meter in front of Little Diner got run over by a car,” she said. “There were too many obstacles to reopen there.”
She sold the downtown restaurant in 1994 and had a brief run with another Route 66 Diner at 19th Street and Sheridan Road in the late ’90s. Higgs resurfaced downtown with Route 66 Diner on Second Street in 2004 before selling it to an employee in 2006; Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co. is there today.
“I love it here at the VFW,” Higgs said. “It seems everyone is happy when I’m cooking.”
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