Cafeterias are a Southern specialty. Born out of the efficiency of self-serve prepared food, by utilizing a limited service concept, they were staples of the 20th Century. The cafeteria allowed families to quickly and cheaply feed an entire family. This was one of the major selling point early on, cafeterias were cheap. The quality of the food was below an average dine-in restaurant of the time, but still far above even the earliest incarnations of fast food. The first Luby’s Cafeteria as we have known them started around 1947 in San Antonio, by Robert Luby. The majority of the existing family had already had experience in the Cafeteria business, with Robert’s father opening his first restaurant in 1911 in Springfield, MO before expanding south. “Bob” Luby would begin to employee various members of his family in running the business, sometimes dividing the chain in terms of ownership and direct control.
While the history of the Houston Luby’s franchise is a bit fuzzy, what I can glean from newspaper records is this. Luby’s first Houston cafeteria opened
February 20, 1951 and was run by Donald V. Luby. While I don’t have an exact operation date for these It seems that by the 1960s Donald was up to 2 locations, one in River Oaks, the other at South Post Oak and San Felipe. However, by around 1970 all mentions of these Luby’s suddenly drop off. This is no coincidence as in 1965, Cafeteria’s Inc, the branch of Luby’s under Bob Luby, began to open restaurants in both Dallas and Houston under the Romana Cafeteria name. It seems around 1969 Cafeteria’s Inc converted the San Felipe Luby’s into a Romana location. By the late 70s, Cafeterias Inc was using the Luby’s in the area surrounding Houston, but Romana was still displayed next to the Luby’s logo even into the early 1980s. By the mid 80s Cafeteria’s Inc had purchased many branches of the Luby’s Cafeteria families, and made the decision to integrate everything under the Luby’s brand effectively “killing off Romana” and returning Luby’s to Houston.
Having grown up in Oak Forest, my family didn’t much go to Luby’s when I was a kid as my mom and grandmother were big fans of Wyatt’s Cafeteria that was on 43rd Street at Ella. We didn’t start going to Luby’s on 34th and 290 until after Wyatts closed, but it was so long ago I couldn’t tell you when that was. But I remember that Luby’s being there as a little kid because we would pass it when my sister would want to go to Cactus Records that was in that same strip center. We’re talking probably 78, 79, 80 – around that time.
It seems that we ate at Wyatt’s Cafeteria and Luby’s fairly equally when they were both still around. The Wyatt’s we’d usually go to were the North Oaks Mall location (which I think briefly became a Luby’s) and the location at the Steeplechase shopping center at Jones Rd. & FM 1960 W (the shopping center where Ollie’s is opening).
As for Luby’s, we’d usually go to the location across I-45 from Greenspoint Mall (which only closed a few years ago, the Google page for it is still up: https://goo.gl/maps/JaV7HEkJ7ZHtE3m97) or the long-closed location within Willowbrook Mall. I believe we also ate at the FM 1960 W location near I-45 that is a pretty ancient location that will be surviving on with the new owners (https://goo.gl/maps/xrDd2mU8gU6ZSftV8). In more recent times, I’ve also eaten at the 249 & Spring-Cypress and 290 Luby’s near FM 1960 W. At this point, that 290 location is probably at least 25 years old so it’s hardly brand new.