Indiana’s Top Chefs featuring Shirley Bailey at Chaperral Café 

By Elizabeth Granger 

For more than half a century: Serving huge portions of love and camaraderie along with home cooking.

SHELBYVILLE – It’s all on the back of the T-shirt: 50 years. 18,200 days. 3.7 million cups of coffee. 1.6 million pieces of chicken. 273,000 breaded tenderloins.

And 10 million smiles

You’ll find it at Chaperral Café in downtown Shelbyville, a staple in this community since 1968. That’s when a local banker approached Shirley Bailey to suggest she open a restaurant. 

It had been her lifelong dream, and people knew about it – although she never expected it to actually happen. But 31-year-old Bailey was already well known in the community as someone who served giant portions of love and camaraderie along with food in the eateries where she worked. 

But when the banker called and told her he had a place she might be interested in, she told him she didn’t have much money. “’Don’t worry about the money,’ he told her. ‘I’ll write you up a little note and you can pay me whatever you can.’” 

The banker had already been in touch with a building owner – a building with a bar open 24 hours a day. “It was so bad I wouldn’t go in it,” Bailey says, and she told him, “You know how I am about that drinking.” 

He laughed and said he was sure she wouldn’t have a problem. The next thing she knew, the owner remodeled the building for her.  

Seems they thought it was important to help Bailey. And she’s been helping Shelbyville ever since. 

In March 2018 Bailey celebrated the 50th anniversary of her restaurant with an open house that offered free food to everyone. “I did something that I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “That is to put food out and let people come in and eat what they want. They were lined up. And I felt so good.” 

Bailey was born in Kentucky and moved to Shelbyville as a child soon after her dad died. She is one of 10 children; an older sister, already in central Indiana, invited her family to join her. 

Bailey started working at 15, to help out. She doesn’t remember when or why she knew she wanted to have a restaurant; she just knew. “When I get older, I’m gonna’ have me a restaurant,” she always thought.  

“Nothing fancy,” she says even now. “I wouldn’t know how to fix a fancy meal. It’s just plain old country cooking.” 

Signature meals are the tenderloin – be sure to specify the Stardust tenderloin, created by Bailey when she worked at the Stardust drive-in – and fried chicken. There’s also a buffet, and breakfast items are available all day long. Coffee is served in big mugs, not a one of them matching. 

Clientele includes just about every segment of the community. “A little bit of everybody,” Bailey says. Doctors, lawyers, the mayor, church people on Sunday – “the whole 9 yards.” Every day a group of guys comes in to drink coffee and chew the fat. 

Morning starts early at the Chaperral. It hadn’t even opened its doors yet – back in 1968 – when Bailey got a visit from postal worker Bob. He’d heard the restaurant would open at 5 a.m.   

“How can I get to work if you don’t open until 5?” he asked her. “I won’t have any place to eat.”

“What about 4?” Bailey replied. “Do you think 4 would work?”

So she opened at 4 a.m. 

For more than 30 years Bailey would have Bob’s breakfast sitting on the table for him when he’d come in. He had a half hour for lunch, and she’d have his lunch sitting on the table for him, too. 

Bob is retired now, and he’s a widower. Bailey tells him to come in to the restaurant because “there will be someone here who will always talk to you. And if there isn’t, I’ll put you to work washing dishes.” 

So he continues to come in. When he leaves, he always pats Bailey on the shoulder and says “good-bye.” And she replies, “Hurry back.” 

Rachael Ackley from Visit Shelby County tourism says she knows why the restaurant has succeeded for so long. “When people come in here, they feel that someone loves them,” she says. 

Bailey and her husband, who was a construction worker, raised two children. The kids helped name the restaurant – after a television Western titled “High Chaparral.” They were so young that “my daughter would tip-toe to reach the tables.”

“This is home,” daughter Marsha Chaney says. “My brother and I were raised here. We ate every meal here. I used to say that if the Welfare knew, they’d probably take us away because we never had any food at home.”

Now that daughter works in the Chaperral with her mom. 

Chaney has tried to convince her mother to take a vacation, but it’s never worked. And retirement? Not a thought. 

“I still look forward to comin’ down here every day,” Bailey says. “It’s been a remarkable 50 years. The Lord has blessed me in many ways, and I ain’t kidding anybody. I thank Him every day.” 

Chaperral Café 
14 E. Broadway St.
Shelbyville, IN  46176
(317) 398-7118
https://chaperral-cafe.hub.biz/