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Hanford’s Star Restaurant: Where History and Community Meet

Jun 28, 2014 02:03PM ● Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine

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Hanford’s Star Restaurant: Where History and Community Meet

by Judith Menezes

Kings and Tulare Counties Bureau

Thursday is meatloaf day at Star Restaurant in downtown Hanford and owner and cook Rotha “Roger” Nop has been working the grill since 5:30 in the morning.

Out front, head waitress Christy Cordoba is greeting her lunch regulars, running the cash register and refilling coffees. Orders go in and food, such as chicken fried steak, cheeseburgers, linguica and biscuits and gravy, comes out of the kitchen in the back.

The cuisine is basic American comfort food. But what makes Star Restaurant unique among Hanford’s eateries, and a fact that many locals are unaware of, is its longevity. Star Restaurant opened in 1901 and is Hanford’s oldest restaurant.

When the historic Star Restaurant opened, people rode horse-drawn carriages down the new town’s dirt roads, the Model T Ford was eight years away and Superior Dairy would not open for another 29 years. The population of Hanford was about 3,000. Located on what used to be Hanford’s main street, then called Front Street, Star Restaurant continues to do a steady business five days a week serving a community of regulars and newcomers.

The outside of the restaurant has pretty much stayed the same as the city has grown around it, said Eddy Funahashi, whose grandparents and great-aunt and uncle started the restaurant. It has survived a succession of restaurants around the corner and the popularity of franchise and drive-through restaurants around town.

Star customers are greeted by a 15-foot-high ceiling, dark-wood paneling and two windows of a now-closed loft where the owners once lived. The eight oak swivel chairs at the counter are smooth with age and the Seth Thomas clock is vintage. There is no glossy color menu or faux antiques on the wall. Star’s atmosphere is authentic.    

When it opened, it did so to serve everyone--white, black, Chinese, Portuguese and Hispanic.  In those early days of Hanford, most restaurants served whites only, Funahashi said. The early Star was a gathering place, a melting pot where everyone would come to eat.

“They would turn no one away,” he said.

Funahashi owns Ed’s Tick Tock Jewelers, a business started by his father in 1958 and the oldest jewelry store in town. It’s next door to the Star Restaurant, which he owns and leases out.

During World War II the restaurant closed. The Funahashi and Tsutsui families, who welcomed all to their restaurant, themselves became victims of wartime hysteria and racism. The two families were sent to dusty, barren internment camps in Arizona and the Midwest. Several friends cared for the boarded-up restaurant so it could quickly open after the war. Nevertheless, a storage basement with a dirt floor was looted. Ray Funahashi’s prized violin was stolen, something he talked about “til his dying day,” Funahashi said of his grandfather.

Directly after the war, another Japanese family took over the restaurant followed by a succession of other owners. Over the years, six to eight people have operated the restaurant through a lease agreement.  Funahashi recalled one memorable owner: Bob Chin, a clothing designer from New York who moved to Hanford looking for a simpler life. He ran the restaurant in the 1990s with his bride from China.

The current owner, Roger Nop, has operated the restaurant for 10 years. He owned a donut shop in Long Beach and was visiting family in Hanford when he noticed the restaurant had closed, the kitchen equipment already moved out back. He had no restaurant experience. As he remembers it, a Fresno Bee reporter was there that day doing a story on the closure of Hanford’s oldest restaurant. He signed an agreement with Eddy Funahashi and instead of announcing the restaurant was closed, The Bee headline read “Star is Reborn.”

Much like the Star’s storied history, Nop has a story of his own. Born in Cambodia, he was 12 when a neighbor found him picking fruit in an orchard and warned him not to go home. The Khmer Rouge had killed his family. His mother, father and three sisters gone. For two years he survived by selling junk on the street. He managed to finish high school and was twentysomething when he came to the United States with the help of an uncle after seeking political asylum in Thailand.

Friendly and easy going, he attributes his success to an immigrant’s sense of hard work, a keen knowledge of finances and a menu he has no plans to change. He remembers one morning 8 ½ years ago. The cook quit. Before breakfast. Nop put on an apron and hasn’t looked back. He went online to learn to cook.

The food has always been American, with a nod to local ethnic groups. In the old days, Swiss steak and beef tongue were served. Nowadays, roast beef, stew, hamburgers, soups, linguica sandwiches, biscuits and gravy and chicken fried steaks are on the menu. Fish is served Fridays, and the homemade salsa is also a hit, said Nop. A bowl of mashed potatoes is $1.85.

One popular item is the $3.99 breakfast special: a pancake the size of a dinner plate, two eggs and bacon or sausage. The breakfast regulars are said to be among the most faithful in town and there is reportedly a regular customer who has eaten there since 1945.

Rodger Brasel, downtown carousel operator, brings tours to Star Restaurant a couple of times a week. “They’re friendly,” he said of the staff and customers. “I like it.”

A few well-known people have patronized Star, including local politicians, musician Alison Krauss and comedian Gabriel Iglesias. Four years ago, Huell Howser, host of the popular PBS series California’s Gold, visited while filming a segment on Hanford. Nop told Howser that the cheeseburgers were the best thing on the menu so people from Fresno started to drive down for a Star burger.

Ask head waitress Cordoba why Star Restaurant remains popular and she will unabashedly tell you “the food and me.” She is usually the only waitress on duty and some days she serves 50 people.

She is no-nonsense.

“I’m blunt. I don’t have time to fiddle around,” she said.

To speed things up, Cordoba puts in an order the moment she sees a regular pull up. “I know if they want lemon in their tea or not.” She is attentive and service-oriented and describes her customers as “awesome. I don’t ever wake up and dread my job.”

She loves waitressing, likes her boss, and, if you are a regular, she knows your business. If you are not a regular, you might just become one.

Said Cordoba, “I never let somebody walk through that door without saying ‘Good morning.’”

 

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Star Restaurant, 122 W 6th St, Hanford, CA 93230

(559) 584-7276. Open Monday through Friday. Breakfast served from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. Lunch and dinner until 2:30. Closed Saturday and Sunday.

 

Judith Menezes is the coordinator of the journalism program at College of Sequoias. She spent several years working as a newspaper reporter and editor in Southern California and the Central Valley. She can be reached at judy@cencalilife.com. 

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