Saturday, March 31, 2018

Luxury Grills and Economy Cars Part 1

Luxury Grill, economy car

My father grew up with a much older sister he rarely called by her first name. Instead, he called her Sis. When I was born, she became Aunt Sis. If it weren't for my Aunt Sis, I probably wouldn't have seen a movie in a theater until high school. Aunt Sis had no children, and she retired when I was still in elementary school. She would graciously volunteer to take me to the movies once every few weeks, basically any time my parents needed me out of their hair. She sat through some truly terrible '90s era kids movies up to and including "Jingle All the Way" as a favor to me and my parents. Speaking of, at Christmastime, Aunt Sis would take me to the mall or to K Mart, or the shiny new Meijer in Lexington, Kentucky so I could buy gifts for my friends and family. Whatever the outing, she'd always take me to lunch too. These lunches were the genesis of my G.D. Ritzy's obsession.

Aunt Sis grew up in the '40s and '50s, and I imagine she enjoyed the nostalgic feel of the place. I too, gained an appreciation for the Art Deco aesthetic of G.D. Ritzy's. Incidentally, the restaurant's full name in many markets was G.D. Ritzy's Luxury Grill and Ice Creams, hence the title of this series. I have vivid memories of being fascinated by the little hexagonal tiles on the floor, the slightly elevated dining area, and the teardrop-shaped reproduction Seeburg jukebox speakers on the walls. (I was a weird kid.) The kids meals served in small cardboard replicas of '50s convertibles and the vast selection of house-made ice cream didn't exactly scare me off either. I recall Lexington having three or four Ritzy's, until they all suddenly closed in the early '90s, along with most of the other 120 or so locations. A decade or so later I was in college in Southern Illinois, and Ritzy's was little more than a distant memory. I assumed they were all gone, but I held out hope.

The teardrop speakers of my beloved fuzzy childhood memories.
In 2005 or so, I was idly Googling, and stumbled across a handful of Ritzy's still open for business in Indiana and Kentucky. Specifically, there were three Evansville, Indiana locations operating as G.D. Ritzy's and two Owensboro, Kentucky locations operating as just Ritzy's, as I believe the Lexington locations of my childhood did. Upon learning Ritzy's was still a thing in two nearby cities, I loaded up my '88 Lincoln with a few friends and went to relive my childhood at one of the Owensboro Ritzy's. I found that nearly everything about the place was almost exactly as I remembered. I later explored one of the Evansville locations and found that it too still felt like the 1980s interpretation of the 1940s that Aunt Sis and I were so fond of. Eventually, life got in the way again, and I didn't have a chance to eat at a Ritzy's for another 12 years.

I learned of a sixth Ritzy's operating in Huntington, West Virginia, and I had a chance to take a detour there on my way back from Lexington after visiting family last Christmas. That lunch rekindled my interest in Ritzy's and endangered retail chains in general. I found myself with no plans or obligations and a four-day Easter weekend. Naturally, I realized this was the perfect time to load up my trusty Ford Festiva, and drive down from Michigan so I could visit, and dine at, all six remaining (G.D.) Ritzy's. Expect the next few blog entries, including this one, to discuss individual meals at one or two different Ritzy's locations.

Meal #1
Location: G.D. Ritzy's, 4810 University Drive, Evansville, Indiana
Order: Double Ritz with cheese, fries, Diet Mountain Dew, single scoop amaretto cherry ice cream

My first stop appears to serve as the headquarters for the three Evansville locations. It's impeccably clean. There are two minivans and a refrigerated truck, all with Ritzy's logos on them in the parking lot. My burger and fries are exactly what I needed after driving 450 miles in an antique economy car. I chat with the woman scooping my ice cream. She's a G.D. Ritzy's OG. When I tell her I drove from Detroit to eat at every Ritzy's she asks how I heard of Ritzy's if I lived in Detroit. When I tell her I'm from Lexington, she instantly picks up what I'm putting down and recalls the same Lexington Ritzy's locations as me. We discuss the history of the chain and its possible revival in Ohio by chain founder Graydon Webb. I'm holding up the ice cream line. I thank her for time and for geeking out with me, and sit back down to eat my ice cream.

The burger patties are flattened on the grill as they cook, rendering them crispy on the outside, and juicy in the middle. It makes for a wonderful burger experience. 

Most of the dining area's floor space is about 18 inches higher than the kitchen and ordering area. I'm not sure why, but it's not unpleasant. This interior is exactly as I remember the Lexington locations looking when I was a kid.

Translation: Don't fall, and please don't sue us if you do.

G.D. Ritzy himself adorns the outside garbage can. 

G.D. Ritzy's fleet vehicle #1

G.D. Ritzy's fleet vehicle #2

Some very ritzy landscaping. 

The building is in beautiful condition, a time capsule straight out of the 1980's with a 1940's veneer. 

Meal #2
Location G.D. Ritzy's, 4320 North First Avenue, Evansville, Indiana
Order: Chili 3 way, Luxury peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Diet Mountain Dew, single scoop Richest Chocolate ice cream

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is one of Ritzy's signature offerings. It's served open face with fresh strawberry slices and chopped peanuts on thick white bread. It's not overly sweet, and very refreshing. It's the PB&J for adults, the Arch Deluxe of the PB&J world. It's my first time eating Ritzy's chili, and though it's served over noodles and under a mound of shredded cheddar in the Cincinnati style, it lacks the cinnamony flavor associated with Cincinnati chili. (G.D. Ritzy's originated in Columbus, Ohio.) This is chili designed for mass appeal, outside of  the Ohio market. I like Cincinnati chili, but I also like chili in general, so I have no real complaints. The three Evansville G.D. Ritzy's have the same owner. This location is also beautifully maintained, but the staff is younger. When I tell the high school kid scooping my ice cream about my adventure, and that I intend to keep and frame the paper liner that was on my tray, he's incredulous. He thinks I'm weird. If my affinities for oddball fast food and vintage hatchbacks are any indication, he's not wrong.

These are a few of my favorite things. 

Peanut butter jelly with a baseball bat

I'm digging the unique signage at this location. Check out this three-sided sign. 
This drive thru signage is sure to attract watch chain spinning, zoot suit wearing, hep cats driving impeccably polished Studebakers with Glenn Miller and his Orchestra blaring on single-speaker AM radios.


  1. Great memories. That is a LUXURY PBJ!

  2. I too was a huge fan of Ritzy's as a kid; we had one in Champaign, IL, and I was quite sad to see it close. I wound up in Evansville this winter for work, and my jaw hit the floor when I saw the Ritzy's on North First Street; it was amazing to step in and have the burger and fries I'd been pining over for the past couple of decades, and I hope to be sent down that way again soon!

  3. The (now-gone) Steak 'n Shake in Erie, PA served regular chili con carne on spaghetti, Cincinnati-style. It was okay, but hardly the transcendent experience my first Skyline Chili 4-Way was.