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Filling up in a friendly atmosphere

mark baker As pilots, we always have a plan. Every flight starts with one, even if it’s just to practice some maneuvers or do a few touch and goes. But in aviation, as in life, things don’t always go as planned—and that, it turns out, can be a very good thing.

Not long ago, a friend and I were flying from Minnesota to Florida in a 1966 Beechcraft Baron when mechanical gremlins and Mother Nature put a kink in our plans. After weather deviations, a fussy alternator, and an uncooperative autopilot emptied our tanks and drained our enthusiasm, we decided it was time for a stop.

We needed a place with fuel for the airplane and ourselves, and my friend suggested Sikeston Memorial Municipal Airport in Missouri because it offered both nearby. That’s when amazing things started to happen.

We called unicom to let them know we were coming, and as soon as we taxied to the ramp, a van pulled up to greet us. An employee at the FBO filled the tanks—even though gas at Sikeston is self-serve.

There’s no restaurant on the airport, but we were told there was a great place nearby where they like pilots. With the airplane full, I just wanted to stretch my legs and get a quick bite, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the time to drive into town to do it. The prospect of good food won out and I agreed. As promised, it was a quick ride into town, still in the airport van, and we soon pulled up in front of an enormous building with a parking lot full of tour buses and at least 100 people lined up outside. The sign read, “Lambert’s Cafe.”

When I saw the line, I told my stomach to stop growling because there was no way we had time for this! And that’s what I told our driver. He laughed and told me not to worry about it because Lambert’s has a soft spot for pilots.

Sure enough, we were led into the restaurant and around the crowds to a special table reserved just for pilots. We took a seat and looked over the menu. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed people raising their hands and waving them around. I looked up just in time to see bread come flying in their direction.

Turns out, Lambert’s might be best known for its “throwed rolls.” Yes, the servers bring warm rolls and literally throw them to customers—something they’ve been doing for more than 30 years. I confess that the kid in me couldn’t wait to play catch with my food.

Although throwing food is a relatively recent addition, Lambert’s is a local institution. It first opened in 1942 in a much smaller location on South Main Street in Sikeston. Earl and Agnes Lambert began with a $1,500 loan and very little else—but their generous portions and delicious food kept the business growing.

Today there are three locations: Sikeston; Ozark, Missouri; and Foley, Alabama. And the family-run restaurants have attracted plenty of famous guests through the years. From Elvis Presley to the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, from NFL players to television commentators, and country music stars to actors, it seems just about everyone who has visited this area knows that Lambert’s is worth a stop.

The menu is loaded with comfort-food favorites such as meatloaf, pot pie, and fried chicken. I ordered chicken strips and was amazed by the huge platter of food that quickly appeared. And it just kept coming. Servers circulate through the restaurant carrying galvanized buckets of side dishes or “pass arounds” such as potatoes, beans, and fried okra. Just wave them over and they’ll ladle up as much as you like.

The food was great, the atmosphere was fun, the service was quick, and I left Lambert’s—and Sikeston—with full fuel, a full stomach, and a happy glow. I even had money left in my pocket, thanks to the reasonable prices for both the food and the avgas.

Obviously I’m not the first pilot to discover Lambert’s or the pleasures of being treated like a welcome guest at a small airport. But the whole experience reminded me just how lucky we are as pilots to have the freedom to roam the country, visiting places and meeting people we might never encounter any other way.

Serendipity brought me to Sikeston and Lambert’s for the first time. But it won’t be the last. I’m already thinking of an excuse to go back and enjoy a great airport and some “throwed rolls”—and next time it will be part of the plan.

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AOPA PresidentMark Baker started flying in 1979 while in college at the University of Minnesota.

Mark Baker

Mark Baker

Mark Baker is AOPA’s fifth president. He is a commercial pilot with single- and multiengine land and seaplane ratings and a rotorcraft rating.

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