Happy Place

Luby's Is at the Heart of Our Texan Experience

While uncertainty swirls around the brand, one writer shares memories of the cafeteria.

By Craig Hlavaty

With Luby's up for sale and the future of the famed Houston-based cafeteria brand uncertain, we asked notable Houstonian and lifelong Luby's customer Craig Hlavaty to share his thoughts and memories. Want to share yours? 

When the news hit that Luby’s was going to be put up for sale, I was taking an afternoon nap and was awoken by numerous tweets and text messages from concerned friends and internet homies offering up their condolences. It was as if I had a well-known grandparent pass away, and suddenly everyone wanted to check in on me. 

Being in an online, viral Luby’s commercial will do that, along with making my Texas-native reverence for the place as if it were a personality trait. 

I’ve been asked why I loved the place and my answers are pretty standard: tradition, the simplicity of the menu, the classic cafeteria vibe, choosing which color of Jell-O you felt like that day. 

Growing up I’d go there—more often than not—with my elderly relatives. This was a place where I would hear stories about growing up during the Great Depression as I picked at my square fish and tartar sauce. I’d hear Luby’s fare compared to some long dead relative’s recipe. 

“Aunt Millie made her sweet potatoes just like this, but she used the store-brand marshmallows and people say you can’t taste the difference, but yes you can,” I’d hear at the table, a tongue click punctuating the shade. 

In my roaring 20s, I lived off 290 and 43rd Street and would usually sober myself up with a trip to a Luby's breakfast buffet around the corner. It had a vibe like a Vegas buffet without the slot machines, and staring at a plate of scrambled eggs and hash browns felt like touching back down on Earth after an intergalactic bender. You got unlimited Luby’s love, at least until the lunch rush started and the infinite bacon train returned back to paradise until the next weekend. 

A solo trip to Luby’s has always been about grounding myself into a squishy booth, powering down my ego, and being one with my emotions for a few minutes, all with two kinds of gravy in front of me. The world digging in around me isn’t so thorny there, and most problems can be solved or at least delegated. 

I started going to Luby’s alone when I learned to drive. Some suburban teenage boys might drive to Sonic to check out which monthly school crush is working, but I’d be grabbing a warm, brown tray straight from the dishwasher to get some chicken-fried steak. There’s nostalgia in the simple, orderly mess of a Luby’s tray heavy with those thick dishes overflowing with spectacular starches. 

Sitting with a few dozen silver-haired couples from all shades of the rainbow is comforting, too, because my mind wanders and I imagine them as my own grandparents. I think of their stories, the doctor’s appointment they just went to, or the weekly visit to the hairdresser. 

For some it’s not as hip and current, and maybe I’m just old-fashioned, a touch too sentimental. I know that for some, the memories just aren’t there, and they prefer a much more artisanal comfort food aesthetic. Luby’s isn’t the place to take your taste buds on an expensive date and be seen by your fellow foodies, which isn’t to say that I don’t sit and daydream about Luby’s mac 'n cheese or imagine the taste of blue Jello on my tongue during meetings at work. 

In late 2018, some friends that worked on the PR side of the company invited me to be in a commercial series centering on real people talking about why they love Luby’s. I shot the ad before Christmas in Southwest Houston, and within three months people could see and hear me wax poetic about fried carbs and Texas pride in internet commercials. I was the face you had to click through to get to the good stuff, and in return I got some gift cards to snack on. I was happy to stump for a pop culture institution. 

Like everyone, I don’t know what the future holds for Luby’s, but I’m rooting for someone with a reverence for the brand to magically jump in and save the day. The thing is, I don’t even think you would need to change a thing. Next to nothing on the menu (OK, that raisin carrot salad creeps me out) needs changing and the decor is quaint and neighborly. 

Maybe more veggie and vegan options? I could see health-conscious baby boomers and older folks being amiable to trying meat substitutes coming from Luby’s of all places. 

Who knows? Maybe in 20 years we’ll be eating slabs of Impossible CFS with mashed cauliflower topped with a veggie-based gravy. Visualize vegan pecan pie! 

Want to contribute your own memories and thoughts about Luby's? Click here to fill out your submission; we'll post a few of our favorites in the near future.

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