Bethany Clough

Eating Out: The Chicken Man has died, but his restaurant lives on

Rudy Jr.’s Chicken Man restaurant, located at Hughes and Weber avenues, is 48-and-half years old and, despite the death of its owner, employees want to keep it open.
Rudy Jr.’s Chicken Man restaurant, located at Hughes and Weber avenues, is 48-and-half years old and, despite the death of its owner, employees want to keep it open. bclough@fresnobee.com

The Chicken Man has left us.

Rudy Wagner Jr. – he’s the Rudy in Rudy Jr.’s Chicken Man restaurant at Hughes and Weber avenues – died in October of multiple illnesses, including pneumonia. He was 68.

If you’re not familiar with the Chicken Man restaurant, you should be. It’s a Fresno classic.

The restaurant is 48 1/2 years old and yes, it is still open. The brother-sister team of the cook and waitress are vowing to keep it going.

Some background (and a little honesty): This restaurant is located in what some would call a scary part of town near Highway 99 and Clinton. It’s a bit dated with its brick and brown wood exterior and old-school interior.

Chicken Man can’t die yet. It’s going to be a legacy in a year and a half.

Janet Wash, Chicken Man waitress

But none of that matters to the people who love Chicken Man’s food. The restaurant has one of the highest ratings in Fresno on restaurant review site Yelp.com.

The fried chicken is the star of the show here, although the restaurant also serves burgers, ribs and sandwiches. The most popular dish is the chicken dinner, says waitress Janet Wash. For about 12 bucks, you get half a fried chicken, fat fries (those are steak fries), barbecue beans, garlic bread and salad.

The fried chicken recipe belonged to Wagner’s dad, Rudy Sr. He started the restaurant in 1967 with Rudy Jr. when the younger Wagner was 20 years old. It was originally at First Street and Olive Avenue.

Somewhere along the line, they started using the catchphrase, “Don’t heat that pan. Call the chicken man.”

Rudy Jr. was an honest man who would talk to anybody, an Oakland Raiders fan and a good boss, Wash says.

“He always cared for us employees,” she says. “We could tell him anything.”

Somewhere along the line, Wash and her brother, cook Ray Friend, became like family. Wagner and his wife, Inge, took Friend to Reno for his 21st birthday. (He hit it big at a casino that trip and Rudy Sr. nicknamed Friend “Jackpot.”)

He was an excellent husband.

Janet Wash, Chicken Man waitress, talking about her former boss, Rudy Wagner Jr.

When Wagner Jr. first went to the hospital in January, Wash moved into his home to care for Wagner’s wife, who has dementia. Wash stayed until Wagner died in October.

Family is part of the reason the Chicken Man restaurant has stayed where it is all this time. Wagner lived nearby and was constantly going back and forth, caring for his wife and then the restaurant. He had the opportunity to move Chicken Man, Friend says, but he turned it down.

The restaurant still has a following, but times have changed. The city has grown north, and the restaurant business is a tough one with slim profits.

“We need customers,” Friend says. “When I worked here as a kid, there were times we had people lined up at the door waiting for tables.”

They especially want the restaurant to reach its 50th birthday for Wagner, Wash says.

“Chicken Man can’t die yet,” she says. “It’s going to be a legacy in a year and a half, and we’re going to have the biggest party here.”

Buffalo Wild Wings

The newest Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Fresno is open at 3331 W. Shaw Ave. in the Broadway Faire shopping center. The restaurant took over the former California Wok, remodeling the space.

The wings and beer joint has the chain’s newest look with more than 70 TVs and is different than the existing one near Fresno State.

Buffalo Wild Wings gives away free wings for a year to the first 100 people in line at the openings of its new stores. A line of people camped out overnight to be one of the first 100 last week.

TGI Fridays

The TGI Fridays at Herndon Avenue and First Street celebrated its remodel last week. The restaurant, built in 1979, is one of the oldest Fridays on the West Coast, according to the company.

Working overnight during a 6-month time period, workers ripped out and replaced the bar, booths, tables, bathrooms and more.

During an event last week, bartenders channeled Tom Cruise in the movie “Cocktail” and made a show of flipping bottles and making special drinks. The drinks were auctioned off and the money donated to the Community Food Bank.

Bethany Clough: 559-441-6431, @BethanyClough

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