The Highlands and Food: A Snapshot

What we now know as the Highlands District (not that there’s frequent reason to mention it) began as a collection of lots dubbed ‘Valley View.’ Witness this shot from a 1931 map of Albuquerque:


Now, this doesn’t tell one all that much about the neighborhood. This was before the 1937 realignment of Route 66 through Central Ave; construction of the state fairgrounds started the same year. This moment in time was undoubtedly a quiet one for Valley View/The Highlands.  If we looked at earlier maps, we’d see that Grand and Copper weren’t yet added. We’d also see that some lots had yet to be subdivided (presumably for alley access).

The Highlands District really took off in the 1950s. The neighborhood held your typical commercial strip, with filling stations, motels and–yes–restaurants.  There were even some light industrial uses (supply yards, ice cream factories) mixed in. Check out this map from 1956:


(above: Washington to Monroe)


(above: Monroe almost to San Mateo)


(above: the corner of Central and San Mateo)

Some observations right off the bat: there are at least seven restaurants in this stretch, maybe one more than exists today. Some rows of office space have sprouted northward from Central along Adams, adding to the neighborhood’s daytime traffic. Although it’s not pictured, the Highlands High School spoke to the area’s further development as a neighborhood node; schools imply not only daytime traffic, but also the availability residential housing stock. The Highland Theater (just east of Monroe) constitutes what Jane Jacobs would call a “primary use”: amenities that induce people to visit a certain district or neighborhood.  If they’re really good, restaurants can also be primary uses.  However, they’re often considered “secondary uses,” especially along commercial strips. “Secondary uses” (again paraphrasing Jacobs) are those that sprout up in order to serve people already in the area for other reasons. To sum up: the Highlands at 1956 was still catered towards automobile traffic, but it had some of the amenities of a neighborhood as well: movie theater, high school, post office, doctor’s office, and even a bank of Albuquerque’s First National Bank (the last three not pictured in the above insurance maps).

During this era, the district’s restaurants would have likely served three primary demographics.  Travelers are the most obvious; not only did many pass through seeking a quick meal, but it was common for motels to have attached office/restaurant combos (a la The Desert Sands Inn). Add in a pool, and your visitors hardly have to leave the premises!  While I can’t find any reviews of the motel restaurants on this strip, I think it’s a safe bet that local residents didn’t dine there unless absolutely necessary.  The second group of restaurant patrons would be the working crowd.  The mix of filling stations, service stations, office/retail space, and maybe even students probably contributed to a healthy lunchtime rush for local eateries.  While gas stations certainly sold snacks in the ’50s, they did not possess the fast food add-ons (Pizza Hut/Taco Bell/Subway) that are so ubiquitous today.  The third group of patrons would be the moviegoers.  While the Highland was not exactly a bustling downtown, there’s no doubt that a highly mobile population would patronize the district’s theater–and maybe stay for a snack afterward.

It may seem that I left out a very obvious group: local residents of the Highlands District. While it may seem likely that they patronized their local eateries, I have doubts that such a tourist-oriented strip would actually attract local diners. Today, the Highlands’ dining options attract very little foot traffic; there is no reason to be at a Taco Tote or Wendy’s if you didn’t drive there.  The ample parking lots and drive-ins attest to this fact.  But where did 1950s residents of the Highlands District go out to eat?  Did they utilize their visitor-centric neighborhood node for more than just its school, bank, post office, and tire stores?  Did their neighborhood affiliation carry any culinary connotations?  I am relatively sure that Antiques & Things (at Madison) used to be a grocery store, but only city directories can help us now. To the Center for Southwest Research, Batman!


3 thoughts on “The Highlands and Food: A Snapshot”

  1. Guy, there may have been purely tourist restaurants on Central as early as the late ’20s. Although Route 66 didn’t officially get realigned until 1937, in 1927 Governor Hannett built a short-cut to Albuquerque that more or less followed what became the ’37 realignment.

    Alas, I’m old enough to remember dining out in the 1950s. Locals actually did eat at some of the motel restaurants. Greasy spoons does describe many of them but some, like the restaurant at the De Anza on Central, had local clientele. The Southwest themed motels like the de Anza and the Tewa (and later the “motor lodges” like Del Webb’s) actually had white tablecloth dining rooms.


  2. Fascinating stuff, Guy, and thanks for the maps. Also, thanks for supplementing the story, Sharon. Guy, I think it would be great if you could add some more information based on what Sharon is saying. What I mean is that “eating out” in the 1950s had a very different meaning than “eating out” in today’s world. Any evidence you can find on when, how and why people ate out in the 1950s vs. when, how, and why they do so today would help here.


  3. Guy, I went poking around my files re: Rt. 66 and found a copy of the AAA guide to motels and restaurants in New Mexico circa 1950. I’ve also got a lot of photos of the Rt. 66 motels but they’re from the 1990s which was long after the heyday of most of them. I’ve also got photos a description of traveling Rt. 66 before it was official (I think). My cousin Art, now in his ’90s, wrote up what he remembered of the trip his family took in 1926 from Chicago to L.A. in the family Graham-Paige. Art remembered that they mostly ate chili . Not chile, but the brown stuff with beans. Art also recalled that they turned over the Graham-Paige near Las Vegas but some telephone workers turned it back right side up and they continued on. This was when the road still went through Santa Fe. You’re welcome to use any of the stuff I’ve got. Just lemme know.


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