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Restaurant Tours: a diner to fly for

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The Sextonville Airport Cafe is found at the end of a winding gravel road, next to a runway that resembles a recently mowed and baled alfalfa field. It's surrounded by galvanized-steel airplane hangars, which are coated with years of peeling whitewash. Bleached linen towels flutter from a clothesline behind the cafe, the only other building on the premises.

Redwood picnic tables and one porch glider adorn the front yard, which is enclosed by a redwood fence; airplanes land only a few feet beyond the fence. A Wisconsin state trooper's squad car is backed into a parking spot, ready to peel out in case of emergency. The path leading to the front door is edged with marigolds and ragweed, and a sign hangs from the door reading, "Honey for Sale."

The cafe (608-647-4237) sits in the heart of Richland County, Wisconsin, on County B just north of highway 14, about 50 miles west of Madison. Going there by car, you'll drive past a legendary Indian mound and a cemetery filled with turn-of-the-century smallpox victims. Going there by plane, you could run into heavy traffic. Pilots of small craft fly in from all over the midwest for owner Betty Schlafer's home-cooked breakfast and noontime meals. The airport has no control tower, no radar or radio, and during Sunday brunch, the air traffic can get pretty hectic.

Inside the cafe are five long tables. One wall is lined with windows that overlook a runway. A yellow barn surrounded by cows provides the backdrop to landing planes. Inside, opposite the windows, a steam table separates the dining room from a small open kitchen.

Betty Schlafer, head honcho of the Airport Cafe, is wearing a housedress with a purple floral design; a brooch filled with colored stones is pinned to her collar. Betty (as she is widely known) has fading red hair offset by pink glasses; her face reflects a peaceful country life.

Betty's mother, who worked as a cook in Milwaukee, taught her only the basics of cooking, telling her, "You cook to please your family; you don't know if you'll marry a French, German, Italian, or whatever." Betty taught herself the rest, and her matchbook covers proclaim the cafe "next to home, best place to eat."

The Airport Cafe hasn't always been run by Betty. In 1957, when her husband was taking flying lessons at the airport, she used to come with him and wait in the car. One day the "bugs got too bad," and she went inside for a cup of coffee, where she met the owner, Hilda Lange, whose brother was the manager of the airport. Hilda fed the people who used the airport, and the men working on the planes. Betty and Hilda became acquainted, and a long-lasting partnership was formed.

Betty leases the building from the city of Richland Center (pop. 4,923), and the flying club is responsible for plowing and mowing the runways and grounds.Breakfast ($2-$2.75)--an "old farm breakfast" of eggs, potatoes, oatmeal, sausage, and ham--is served daily from 7:30 to 11:30. The noon buffet ($4.35, $5.75 on Sunday) begins at 11:30.

At one end of the steam table are plastic dinnerware, mismatched stainless, and thick pastel cafeteria trays. Small salad bowls line the top shelf, and patrons are encouraged to fill as many as they wish. The salad choices today are potato salad; macaroni shells with tomato, cucumber, and vinegar; and a lettuce salad tossed with green peppers, grated carrots, and mild cheddar cheese. A highlight is the homemade applesauce spiced with cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. A silent, unsmiling young blond woman serves coffee.

The selection for the main course is browned pork roast (with more applesauce), meatloaf, baked chicken, amazing ricelike Polish noodles with chicken and broth, boiled potatoes, thick brown gravy, and an assortment of rolls and bread. The meals are "all you can eat," and nobody counts servings. "I like tasty food, with just enough of everything," says Betty. "My customers are predominantly men, so we make a meat-and-potatoes meal," she says matter-of-factly. "I provide service, good food, and that's it."

Betty does all her shopping locally, buying from farmers as much as possible. She cans about 200 quarts of tomatoes, which gets the cafe through January. Each week, Betty and her crew prepare 40 to 50 pounds of beef or pork, 26 chickens, and two whole hams. The main course at Sunday brunch alternates weekly between beef and pork and chicken and ham.

Jack McManus, a Madison attorney whom I recognized from his TV commercials, seems to be a regular. McManus is handing out business cards complete with a color photo of himself. He is posed with an open-cockpit airplane, dressed as a flying ace in cowboy boots. He tosses the cooling contents of his coffee cup out the back door and asks for a fresh cup. He comes to the cafe for what he calls the "grandma food."

Some members of the National Guard are also regulars; one Sunday morning 32 helicopters and 90 men dropped in. Another time there was a pilot who arrived too late for lunch but was given a sandwich and a piece of pie. Betty later learned he had flown all the way from Los Angeles to eat at the cafe.

Betty rarely takes a vacation, but she does take Tuesdays off. When her family visits from out of town, they eat at the airport.

The cafe's walls are covered with handmade dolls, afghans, pillows, and tablecloths. Above the cash register hangs an airplane constructed out of a Coor's beer can. The stuff is made primarily by older local women, and it's all for sale.

A small plane lands outside and two young men come in to pick up three homemade Raggedy Ann dolls they had ordered. "These are my babies," Betty says, clutching them (the dolls) to her breast.

Of her staff, Betty speaks with pride. "My girls are all farm wives so they know how to cook." The girls are in the kitchen each morning at about 6:30; Sunday's work begins Saturday afternoon.

The stoic blond girl approaches bearing peach upside-down cake with a dollop of whipped cream. Betty flips through the local elementary school recipe book. She stops at a favorite: Peaches and Cream. "I make 12 times the recipe," she says.

Outside the kitchen on the back stoop is a bushel basket filled with freshly picked apples. "I'll peel and slice all those for pies for tomorrow." Two racks of pie shells wait for filling.

Betty doesn't think she'll retire soon. "As long as they keep eating I'll keep cooking."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Judy Robb.

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