“Cooky” Ambler, his wife Ellen and employee Pearl Hutton are pictured around 1949.
It’s around 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Todd Eldred is getting ready for the evening rush. He stands behind the cash register, fryer at the ready and juicy hams nearby waiting to be sliced. The day’s pie selection sits temptingly on the counter, showing off for guests as they make their way to claim an orange booth or vintage table for the duration of their meal.
The café’s legacy dates back to 1942, when Cecil “Cooky” Ambler and his wife Ellen opened their doors with a pound of hamburger, a loaf of bread, an onion and some dill pickles. “When they ran out, there was a grocery store across the street and she’d run out and get (more),” says Todd, who along with his mother and brother-in-law own and operate the café today.
That hamburger must’ve been magic, because the customers started pouring in – and before long, they weren’t clamoring for only ground beef. “The big claim to fame back then was hot dogs,” recounts Todd. While dogs were the staple main dish, sweet-toothed guests made white-peach pie all the rage. “You can hardly find white peaches (now), but that was one of the big things when he started.”
Those choices have evolved yet again: Today, fried chicken is the most popular menu item. “We’ve used the same breading for as long as we’ve ever owned (the restaurant),” says Todd. “We used to be able to get the breading from a place in Joplin, but they quit carrying it so we had to order it directly from Illinois now because we want to stay with the same breading.”
One of the day’s diners is 78-year-old Don Kelley, whose trips to the café date back to when he was around five years old. He remembers the times when he’d come in with his uncle, often perching upon the café’s barstools next to the pie counter. Although those stools have been gone since the ‘80s, the memories live on. “I used to ride with him on the milk truck, so we were closer than most uncles and nephews would’ve been,” says Don.
On those visits, his order never wavered. “Always the hamburger and their chocolate milk shake,” he says resolutely. Don now lives in Lamar but still regularly makes the drive to Golden City to visit the café. These days, however, a ham sandwich is his meal of choice. “And stewed tomatoes if they have ‘em,” he says.
Don remembers the days when the restaurant’s pricing system was a bit different. “(Cecil) had a menu, but when you got the register he looked at you and charged you what he wanted to,” says Todd.
For most people, this system turned out great food at a reasonable price. But that didn’t work out as well for a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper who had given Cecil’s son Pat a speeding ticket. “Their bill came to the same amount as his ticket,” says Todd. The story got passed down and retold so many times that some people wondered if it’d even happened. At last, an answer was finally sure. “One guy came through and said, ‘I’m retired from the highway patrol (and) I had the most expensive meal I’ve ever eaten in my life here,’” says Todd.
Cecil stayed with the café until 1975, when he sold the business. But even though he’s been gone for 40 years, his presence is definitely still a part of the business. Several of his recipes are still in use, such as the beef brisket and several of the pies.
While the café today is renowned for its dinner entrees, pie is something else that calls the masses. A quick check on the travel planning website Trip Advisor reveals numerous mentions of the café’s delectable baked goods. Here are a few objective opinions:
… We enjoyed the meal/pie so much, we stopped again on our way home and each had 2 pieces of pie
…The coconut cream was to die for. Blueberry was unbelievable.
…This is PIE HQ. …Needless to say, almost all of us had a piece of pie and some had 2. Yes! That’s how good the pies are.
…You can never go wrong with Cooky’s pie.
You get the picture. Between 20 and 25 varieties are whipped up on a regular basis, and the baking process begins each day at the café around 5 a.m. There are standards on the menu, like coconut cream, which Todd notes is by far the most popular variety. “They make about six of those a day,” he notes. “And apple is probably the second most popular.”
But then there are other kinds – such as sawdust pie – that are a little more unusual. “It tastes like an oatmeal cookie,” says Todd of the pie, which is comprised of graham crackers, coconut, chocolate chips and egg whites. “It’s kind of a drier pie but it’s really good.”
As he talks, the minutes tick away before the dinner diners begin pouring in. It’s time to wrap up and let him get to work. But there’s one more question to be asked: What’s the secret behind the café’s amazing fried chicken? Turns out, there’s no secret. “Just set a timer,” says Todd, who says that 16 minutes is the perfect number. “We’ve just done it so long that we know. That fryer’s been here for years, it’s been set on the same temperate for years. Don’t change anything like that that you don’t have to.”
Want to visit?
Cooky’s Café (529 Main St., Golden City; 417-537-4741) is open seven days a week. Call ahead for opening hours, and connect with them on Facebook.