Culp’s Cafe’s New Breakfast Offerings
By Kevin J. Gray
Taking refuge from an unusually muggy June morning, I met up with my friend Alex and his daughters at Culp’s Café, Dayton History’s diner in Historic Carillon Park. Culp’s is a fitting place to come in from the heat, as the original Culp’s Café, a Dayton staple from the first half of last century, was the first Dayton restaurant with air-conditioning. My friends and I were there to experience the historic café recreation and to sample the operation’s new breakfast menu.
Visitors to the restaurant are treated immediately to a sensory feast—a scene straight out of the mid-1900s. Chrome punctuates the tables and chairs in the main seating area. Patrons sip coffee at the service counter. The grill pops and sizzles and the aroma of bacon and eggs hangs in the air as Chef José Calzada and his team prepare items in the open kitchen. Waitresses carrying carafes of hot java and busily topping off vintage coffee mugs buzz from table to table. War bond posters and mid-century ads line the walls, the music is swing and big band, and photos of the original Culp’s Café connect visitors to a bygone era.
The café is part of Dayton History’s efforts to help residents interact with the city’s past. The organization runs not only the café, but also Carillon Park itself, the Patterson Homestead, Hawthorne Hill, Memorial Hall, and several other local historic sites. As the organization’s website notes, the group “brings the past to life to understand the present and inspire the future by collecting, preserving, interpreting, presenting and promoting the region’s past.”
The café’s origins date back to the early 1900s. The story goes that Charlotte Gilbert Culp, a widow with six children to feed, made ends meet by baking and selling bread, cakes and rolls. The family lived off West Third Street, and the children would go door-to-door in the neighborhood, selling their mother’s bakery items. Over time, the family purchased a stand on South Main Street, where, among other things, they sold the very popular “Culp’s Cakes.”
Eventually, Charlotte’s eldest son, Howard, expanded the business. The Culp family sold dairy products, as well as chicken and pickles, at several lunch counters that Howard leased in the Arcade.
By the 1930s, the Culps had moved into a full cafeteria at the Arcade, which stood across from the RKO Keith’s Theater (the theater, torn down in the late 1960s, stood at West Fourth Street at South Ludlow). The cafeteria’s expanded menu stayed true to Charlotte’s original bakery items (it was famous for its pies and pastries), but also specialized in what might be called “home-cooked” food.
By the 1940s, Dayton’s population had swelled, and the Culp family was feeding up to 5,000 customers a day. However, by the 1960s, the family sold the business. The movement of many of their clientele to the suburbs, and the popularity of the television, meant a drop in customers.
The Dayton History recreation of the original diner stays true to its roots, while adding modern touches (for instance, free WiFi). The menu, which is based around a typical menu from the 1940s, offers period staples like burgers, meatloaf sandwiches, and ice cream floats. A version of the original Culp’s Cake (devil’s food cake with boiled caramel icing) shares billing with slices of Apple-Walnut or Rhubarb pies a la mode. Modern fare includes quesadillas, sweet potato French fries, and grilled veggie burgers.
The new breakfast menu, which premiered June 2, mirrors the lunch menu’s mix of period and modern cuisine. I ordered the All-American (eggs over easy, with bacon and wheat toast), while my friend ordered the Breakfast Quiche. His daughters both opted for the Country Style French Toast.
The All-American was a fairly standard interpretation of the breakfast classic. The duo of eggs was perfectly cooked, a field of white with yellow, runny yokes that I sopped up with the shredded potatoes. The thin strips of bacon were also cooked well, not too crisp, but also without any overly chewy bits.
Alex described his quiche as a proud slab of yolk, cream and chopped fillings of mushroom, onion, and bacon. The quiche was rich, creamy, tasty, and had the smooth consistency of a cheesecake, which was a pleasant surprise because most quiche is firm. Overall, it was simple and elegant.
The girls quickly devoured their French Toast -four golden brown slabs of bread sprinkled with powdered sugar. They described the dish as warm and sweet with a generous egg batter that provided a savory contrast to the sticky syrup.
The café is reasonably priced and family friendly, making it a good choice for parents or grandparents who want to share a bit of the past with the next generation. Chef Calzada noted that the response to the new breakfast menu has been strong, and he hopes in time to make it available all week. The café is open every day and serves the new menu from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays. The standard lunch menu is available Tuesday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The café is located via a separate entrance from the rest of the historic Carillon Park (follow the signs within the park). Visitors can find more details at the establishment’s website: http://www.daytonhistory.org.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.