A baby boomer turns Hard Times into Good Times

We love it here at BoomerCafé when we hear about baby boomers who succeed. That’s why BoomerCafé’s David Henderson shares a story about a lifelong friend from growing up in the Washington D.C. area who has achieved local fame for serving terrific chili.

It was in 1980 that baby boomer Fred Parker, a native of Alexandria, Virginia, decided to leave his stable job as a graphic designer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to pursue his life dream: starting an old-fashioned chili parlor.

The Hard Times Cafe draws a crowd of locals and tourists many evenings.

The Hard Times Cafe in Old Town Alexandria, VA, draws crowds of locals and tourists many evenings.

In the intervening 35-plus years, Fred’s Hard Times Cafe in Old Town Alexandria has established itself as a popular eating place and tourist landmark in the Washington area.

Modeled after a Depression Era chili parlor that Fred’s aunt Irma had in rural Oklahoma, the Hard Times is anything but fancy. It’s the chili the attracts patrons, ranging from members of Congress and Pentagon brass to famous celebrities to locals and tourists … all seeking the “official” signature American food, according to Fred: chili.

An authentic chili mac at the Hard Times Cafe -- chili over spaghetti, sprinkled with shredded cheese and onions, and cornbread on the side.

An authentic chili mac at the Hard Times Cafe — chili over spaghetti, sprinkled with shredded cheese and onions, and cornbread on the side.

Actually, not just chili, but authentic Texas chili, and Cincinnati chili based on a 1922 family recipe. There’s also an original chili competition blend called Terlingua Red and Vegetarian Chili.  All distinctive in their own ways. Some spicier than others, some on the sweet side.

Chili chef Fred Parker at his Hard Times Cafe in historic Old Town Alexandria, VA.

Chili chef Fred Parker at his Hard Times Cafe in historic Old Town Alexandria, VA.

And, there is the traditional “chili mac.” Like a flashback to harder times in America, it’s spaghetti covered with chili for a hearty meal.

Fred serves chili by the bowl, chili over white rice, chili tator tots, and Hard Times chili dogs, made with Nathan’s famous hotdogs. You name it. And, yes, you can order his chili mixes online.

jukebox

The place is decorated with framed culinary awards from over the years, posters of classic cowboy movies, and a life-sized standup photo of Roy Rogers, just in case you want a selfie beside the movie legend.

Fred’s pride and joy is his classic Wurlitzer jukebox, converted now to play CDs of western tunes. An old and well-worn horse saddle sits atop the jukebox.

Steer horns hang over the counter at the Hard Times.

Steer horns hang over the counter at the Hard Times.

Over the decades, the Hard Times Cafe has provided part-time jobs for countless young people saving up for college and to pursue a career. One full-time airline pilot even loved the atmosphere of the Hard Times so much that he would moonlight on weekends serving chili, just for the fun of it.

And, there’s that one weekend evening when a Supreme Court justice was sitting at a booth while singer Emmy Lou Harris sat with friends at the counter. The Hard Times Cafe is a place of legend and memories.

Fred Parker

Fred Parker

Fred is today known unofficially as the Mayor of King Street, the historic main drag through the pre-Colonial town across the Potomac River from Washington. He has pursued his life passion and has prospered.

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