Few people around Boise today can recollect an amazing restaurant that once symbolized a technological frontier in Boise. The “Mechanafe”, deriving its name from being a mechanical cafe, was established in the early years of the Great Depression, 1929, and was able to survive through it. This restaurant will forever be engraved in the memories of those who were around while it was still in operation.
Charles G. Hall was the inventor of the restaurant. It was first established on 916 N Main, downtown near the Idanha Hotel, but it was eventually moved to 211 N 8th Street. The restaurant advertised itself as “100% waiter-less”, as instead of having waiters come and get your orders, it was an all-you-can-eat buffet style restaurant. Similar to the automats along the east coast, the Mechanafe used conveyor belts to bring the food around the restaurant. However, unlike the automats, the customers didn’t have to get up from their seats, as the food would come right by them. There were different levels of belts, the upper belt contained desserts, the belt that ran along the customers’ table contained the main course, and the lower belt was the return for your dishes.
The main courses included fish, chicken and even steak. In order to save money, staff would place more expensive dishes towards the end of a set on the belt, as many patrons wouldn’t have the patience to wait for the more expensive meals and desserts and would choose the first thing by. Although the belts would travel relatively slowly, some people would have to wait several loops for their desired dish to arrive, but their patience was rewarded. There were glass panels alongside the belts that you would push in to be able to grab your dish, or to put your dish on if it were going back to the kitchen.
The restaurant was kept very sanitary. Everyday, after the restaurant closed, the workers would clean the belts with bleach, and once a week, most likely on Sunday evening, the workers would sand the belts. Coffee cups that had chips on them were discarded and the coffee within them was disposed of. Furthermore, restaurant employees were told that they needed to be tested once every six months for typhoid and syphilis, as there was a large typhoid outbreak at one point during the restaurant’s operation.
The cheap entrance fee to get into the restaurant is what allowed it to rise to fame, but it is also what tore it down. Initially it was only 25 cents to eat all the food you wanted, and during the early part of the Great Depression, this was a great deal. As the years went on the restaurant had to raise its prices, but it still attracted many locals. Eventually it got to the point where the restaurant wasn’t permitted to raise the prices during World War II due to economic restrictions, but the cost of food went up due to rationing. With the price of their supply so high, and the revenue of their restaurant so low, the Mechanafe eventually had to close its doors.
The original location of the Mechanafe is currently a parking lot next to the Idanha Hotel, with no proof of a building ever existing. The Cazba restaurant is now being ran where the Mechanafe last stood. Although the diner has passed away, the memories and post cards of the amazing historical cafe have not.
Many thanks to Tim Woodward and Arthur Hart for their news articles which were a source for our page. And a very special thanks to Barbara Jameson whose father worked at the Mechanafe and gave us much of the information used.