BOISE — Mention the word "Mechanafe" to anyone old enough to remember it and you'll see a timeworn face light with a smile.
Named by combining "mechanical" and "cafe," the Mechanafe is an almost mythic part of Downtown Boise lore. Few Boiseans are left who remember its story in detail, however, and attempts to resurrect it were fruitless until Boisean Steve Hall called to volunteer information.
Hall is the grandson of the late Charles G. Hall, the cafe's inventor. His historical photos, and information supplied by Hall and his California aunt filled in the gaps in a unique chapter in Boise's history.
"It was something new and different in those days, and people loved it," Hall said. "If you go to a retirement home and people there are looking bored or grumpy, all you have to do is mention the Mechanafe and they perk right up."
The mechanical cafe was so popular that people stood in lines on the sidewalk to get inside. It initially was just east of the Idanha Hotel at Ninth and Main streets. Later it moved to Eighth Street, about where Capital Terrace is today.
It opened in 1929. Not a great year to start a business, but the cafe was so different from anything that preceded it that it was an instant hit. Its 25-cent admission and all-you-could-eat fare had a lot to do with that.
"The times were grim, and it was unique and special," said Hall's aunt, Betty Hall of Los Angeles. "All you had to do was open a glass door and pick out whatever you wanted to eat. It brought excitement and joy. And the food was good, too."
The food was prepared in a kitchen in the cafe's lower level, then placed on a mechanical belt that took it upstairs to the dining room. The belt was said to be so well balanced that a nail stood on end could make the entire circuit without tipping over. Glass doors allowed customers to reach inside for the food on the belt.
"My grandfather used to take me there," said former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Byron Johnson. "I had an uncle who dared me to see who could drink the most tomato juice, so I opened the door and grabbed as many as I could.
"It was always a very mysterious place to me. When you were finished, your dishes went through a door to be washed. I always wondered what happened to them. I thought they just went away."
Johnson's grandfather, Royal Gold Dunten, was impressed enough with the operation that he bought stock in it. Dunten, Johnson said, was a man who loved to bargain. Given his penchant for a deal, he may have seen legions of kindred spirits as potential customers. Even in 1929, a quarter for all you could eat was a very good deal.
That was true even after the price doubled. The food was so good and so cheap that people took advantage of it.
"I know people who said they helped put it out of business," Steve Hall said. "Guys from Gowen Field would go there and eat just one meal a day. They'd gorge themselves on steaks and pies and whatever else they wanted for a quarter or 50 cents. It was the best deal in town."
Betty Hall recalled that her father "hired excellent cooks from well-known restaurants. In those days, things like pie and cake were served only on birthdays and holidays, but the Mechanafe had them every day. People would come in and just vanquish them. The farmers killed the place because they came in and ate like pigs."
Charles Hall patented the cafe's design but never realized his dream of opening franchises in larger cities. According to his daughter, he sold out in about 1934 and moved his family to California in 1937. The new owners kept Boise's wondrous mechanical eatery running for another decade or so. It closed in the 1940s, a victim of financial difficulties and gluttony.
Charles Hall lived to be old and had dozens of patents to his credit, from a packet lunch to a a fishing pole that cast its own line and bait. A sort of early-day Ron Popeil.
But the Mechanafe remained special to him.
"It created quite a commotion in Boise," Betty Hall said. "People loved it, and he was always proud of that."