The old-school, retro countertops and brightly colored leather booths of Casper’s diner feels like an escape from reality. It could seamlessly be inserted into a movie scene. The joint is noisy, colorful and has an undeniable sense of energy.
The business is 110 years old and has changed locations three times over the course of its history.
“As a business, it’s the oldest thing on Route 66, the oldest in the four states,” Shawn Kraft, the current owner of the diner, said.
Since 1985, Casper’s has been in the same quonset hut — a galvanized, semicircle steel hut — located downtown on Walnut Street, just off of Route 66. Casper’s is a fraction of the size of the breweries and apartment buildings surrounding it. However, the color of the facade makes Casper’s stand out — the front of the restaurant is orange with a bright blue door.
In one word, Kraft describes Casper’s as eclectic — a place where old meets new.
Kraft said the wall decorations have accumulated from the original owners and customers.
From the walls to the shelves, nearly every surface is covered. The curved walls are plastered with miscellanea — framed artwork, foreign money and family photos. Some are prints of iconic artwork, some are originals. A painting of Casper’s in the style of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” hangs directly above the door.
The shelves are lined with trinkets, each more unexpected than the last. Antique statuettes, old soda bottles and a lava lamp rest on the counter while marionette puppets hang from the ceiling.
“The atmosphere is like the art hut at a summer camp,” Kraft said.
The eccentric decor gives the restaurant a sense of timelessness.
“A lot it came from the family, and then a lot of it started coming from friends and customers which are friends,” Kraft said.
However, Casper’s is more than a historical diner with unconventional decor.
“We’re just a little quonset hut that’s very quirky on the inside, has a lot of character, a lot of personality, not real big but big enough for everybody,” said Marcie Brown, a waitress at Casper’s.
Each time a customer enters, they are immediately met with an lively hello and “Have a seat wherever you’d like,” from Brown. One customer she called “sweetie.”
The customers, staff and ownership all describe the restaurant like a family.
“A lot of my customers aren’t my customers — they’re my friends,” Brown said.
Brown said that it’s a combination of the customers, owners and co-workers that make her love her job.
“I’ve been here 10 years, and there hasn’t been one day I’ve woken up and said, ‘Man, I don’t want to go to work today,’” Brown said. “I look forward to coming to work. It’s kind of like my little home away from home.”
Brown said because of the variety of people that stop in at Casper’s, every day is special.
“I get regulars that come in here, people that find us on the internet that come in here, people traveling through,” Brown said.
One of those self-proclaimed regulars is Drew Pearce. He’s a Springfield native and has been coming to Casper’s since he was a kid. Pearce said he eats at Casper’s about three or four times a month.
“You feel like you’re going to your strange uncle’s house to eat,” Pearce said.
Pearce describes the atmosphere as imaginative, unique and cheerful.
“It’s a true original — you can’t get this just anywhere,” Pearce said. “You have to be here in Springfield. If you tried to franchise this place, it wouldn’t work.”
But that’s not the only reason why he keeps coming back to Casper’s. He said he keeps coming back for the signature dishes he describes as authentic Americana comfort food.
“I usually get either a hamburger, a cheeseburger or today I got a large chili and a hamburger with everything on it,” Pearce said.
Comfort food fills the menu but it has a twist. Kraft said Casper’s is “Route 66 greasy food with a flare of carnival and fairs.”
Pearce said there’s a secret ingredient in the chili he hasn’t been able to figure out. He said many customers have tried to uncover the secret recipe.
“The thought of that is cool, that it’s hidden away in some vault, you’d need to send Indiana Jones to go find it,” Pearce said.
The paradox of comfort and adventure is embodied in the blink-and-you-miss-it quonset hut restaurant — familiar yet exciting, social but humble, nostalgic but inclusive.
Before Pearce leaves, Brown gives him a hug.
They’d formed a special bond last November when they’d both experienced the loss of their mothers around the same time. He said he and Brown talked about it together, helping each other through.
“It’s nice that someone would actually take the time to do that,” Pearce said. “When they get to know you, you’re part of the Casper’s family.”