For most people, the moniker “Heaven’s Gate” conjures some inauspicious associative memories. Members of the California-based UFO cult of that name committed mass suicide, believing that was the only way to graduate to the next spiritual level. Or something. The 1980 epic Western Heaven’s Gate flopped at the box office and was widely regarded at the time as the biggest financial disaster in Hollywood history. Almost nothing bearing that name seems to work out. But that didn’t stop Barbie Stanislawski from re-christening her longstanding Northside eatery formerly known as Colonial Cafeteria.
On a recent visit, my guest, who at one time frequented the erstwhile Colonial, asked our server about the eatery’s identity crisis. The young gal told us the new handle came to the owner in a dream. That wasn’t exactly the whole story. The Star-T’s Bud Kennedy recently penned a column about the place –– and the owner surviving her seventh (seventh!) heart attack –– and Stanislawski claims the name came to her in something like a religious vision while on life support after her most recent medical malaise. Doctors gave her a 1 percent chance to live, the article said. So she changed the name abruptly a couple of months ago, and made a few corollary changes, though they’re mostly cosmetic.
Appropriately, the first thing you notice about the cafeteria is that the foyer is decorated by biblical passages and the Ten Commandments stenciled onto the wall. My lunch companion assured me that was about the only thing that looks different about the décor –– save the life-sized Santa with an elf between his legs and some other over-the-top Christmas curios. I hadn’t read Kennedy’s story before my visit. Even without knowing the back-story, I could tell the place radiated religiosity –– maybe the table of five iPhone-wielding nuns also colored my opinion.
Aside from looking as if Christmas threw up, the vibe at Heaven’s Gate screams “cafeteria.” The walls and tablecloths are beige, so it feels like you’re eating inside a pair of khaki chinos decorated with cast-iron statues and porcelain cherubs. In the middle of the room, there are a couple of tables populated by chafing dishes filled with Southern comfort food classics: fried pork chops, fried chicken, meatloaf, sausage, mashed potatoes, mac ’n’ cheese, pea salad, pies, and so on.
I’m not going to go into much detail about the fare here. If you’re looking for a Michelin star-rated experience, go somewhere else. Every morsel we put in our mouths was tasty, hot, and plentiful. There’s nothing fancy on offer, but there’s a lot to like on the buffet. Sure, the salad dressing was out of a store-bought plastic squeeze bottle and the corn out of can, but what do you expect from an all-you-can-eat buffet for around $10?
For being so far off of my radar, Heaven’s Gate seems like it’s pretty popular, too. On our visit, all of the tables were either full or still dirty from their recent occupants when we arrived. Luckily, the servers promptly cleared us a spot and kept our glasses full, despite the ever-growing crowd.
We dined at Heaven’s Gate because we were looking for another place and lost hope. To be totally honest, we stopped in only because we thought it was funny that the named evoked such calamity. But once we were there, we knew almost immediately that we’d be back.