There's something about a Lucky Wishbone cheeseburger, small as a fist, served with iceberg lettuce and American cheese on a thick restaurant plate. And the fries in a paper-lined basket, almost too hot to eat. And that white drive-thru box with fried chicken and corn muffin, honey and butter tucked on the side. But that isn't the story.
The story of the flat-roofed restaurant on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Karluk Street isn't about food so much as it's about history and people and the value of things that don't change. It begins with George Brown, who, until recently, could be found most days sitting on a stool at Counter B. He opened the place with his wife Peggy in 1955. He died on Saturday, ending an era for the popular diner. He was 96.
The Browns (Peggy passed away in 2011) were among the last of an adventurous generation that came to Alaska in the years following World War II, laid the bones of modern-day Anchorage and shaped a culture that still puts high value on work, relationships and being capable. The couple built a restaurant that has introduced generations in Anchorage to a simple, carefully-made sort of diner food that feels more precious as the decades pass: onion rings, a BLT on white, fried chicken livers, a malted chocolate shake.
Born in the farm town of Hager City, Wisconsin, in 1922, Brown joined the National Guard at 17 and learned to fly. He met Peggy and they married in 1944. Then he got orders to ferry supplies and troops in India and across the Himalayas, said his daughter Patricia Brown Heller.
After the war, the Browns traveled up the Alaska-Canada Highway looking for work and adventure. They rode in a 1949 Nash with two kids, Patricia and John, and a dog. Their second two kids, Corky and Lorelei, were born later. Brown took work on Elmendorf as a builder. He opened the restaurant in 1955 in a building he built himself. That was about the same time Ray Kroc got into the franchise business with McDonald's.
"My dad was just an adventurous sort," Heller said. "He had no fear."
In an interview in 2005, Brown described the first days of the restaurant.
"The first day we took in $80. The second day, $125. Then we went to $300 — on Saturday, I believe it was. We were totally swamped. And on Sunday it was $460.
"At that time, why of course, coffee was 10 cents, a jumbo hamburger was 65 cents, a regular hamburger 40 cents, a milk shake 35 cents — that kind of thing."
While America's attitude toward a burger and fries shifted over the years, Brown held steady. There would be no super size, no low fat, low carb or gluten free. He insisted on quality and keeping it simple, Heller said. They never used frozen chicken. The meat from the burgers came from a local supplier. He demanded his employees be clean and punctual and the fries be extra hot.
The restaurant's true secret was the feeling of the place, Heller said. For years, Peggy and George saw it as a kind of living room for the town, decorated with snapshots of customers, friends and family.
"My mother, especially, she said, 'My customers are my friends'" Heller said. "She never forgot anybody's name when she heard it."
The restaurant has been in business so long, some of its original employees have children and grandchildren who have worked there, Heller said. There are people who started coming that first week who are regulars still, she said.
Brown decided to ban smoking at the restaurant in 1990 after several people close to him died of lung cancer. The move riled customers, but put them at the forefront of the smoke-free workplace movement that eventually changed the dining culture of the city.
Lunchtime on any given day might find a dock worker, a couple pilots, a doctor and a politician at the counter. George presided over them all, full of jokes and hugs for kids, she said.
"People would say, 'George, you look good.' He'd say, 'All the girls say that,'" Heller said. "He was kind of outrageous, really. He always had something to say. Some quip of some sort."
As late as December, George was still going to the restaurant, eyeing the dishes coming out of the kitchen for quality, she said. He flew his plane until he was 94, landing it for the last time on the Deshka River, where he liked to fish, Heller said.
"He loved the adventurous spirit of the people who live in Alaska," Heller said. "He wanted to spend eternity here, which he will."
Ownership of restaurant, which is as busy as ever, will be passed to Heller and two longtime employees, she said. A celebration of life for Brown will be held on February 11 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Alaska Aviation Museum. Brown will be buried at Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery in the spring.
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