Friday, December 13, 2019

Gyros and Heroes

A break in format is due. I hope you think it no crime, 
That I’ve written a blog post completely in rhyme. 
I hope no estate sues me or tells me to back off, 
Because I've blatantly ripped off the late, great David Rackoff.

You may think it obsessive or slightly pathetic, 
My passion for fast food with Art Deco aesthetic. 
G.D. Ritzy’s, the chain whose demise sparked curiosity, 
And caused me to travel and write with extreme furiosity. 

I dined at all that were left of the six-score strong chain, 
Half a dozen of them were all that remained. 
I had an awkward encounter with Graydon D. Webb,
The man who founded the chain, a local celeb. 

Later on, I had lunch at Webb’s brand new Ritzy’s, 
It was perfectly fine, but felt vaguely chintzy. 
It lacked the magic of its cousins in Southwest Indiana, 
That are ‘80s originals and sell ice cream with banana. 

But Ritzy’s was born in Central Ohio, 
In a town named for a man with a troubling bio. 
Columbus, explorer, who committed atrocities, 
Has a town and a day named for him, paradoxically. 

Columbus, the town, is the place with the most, 
Converted Ritzy’s buildings, old stucco ghosts. 
I took a trip there to visit these modern-day ruins, 
In the town of Blue Jackets, not Red Wings nor Bruins. 

I went to four old Ritzy’s that didn’t fool anybody, 
Origins clear, as conversions were shoddy. 
I’ll post pictures here now, if you'll scroll down below, 
Each comes with two couplets so I don’t interrupt flow. 

First some photos for reference from the Hoosier State,
In Evansville town, where G.D. Ritzy's does great.
Note the curved fin up front and diminutive foyer,
On a building so small, you'll think of Verne Troyer. 

Inside you'll note mirrors on the back wall's curved bevel,
And find dining tables on a whole other level.
I fear I'd be guilty of a personal failing,
If I didn't point out the aluminum railings. 
These are the traits that I looked for, and found,
All over Columbus where old Ritzy's abound.
Now that you're familiar with the corporate architecture,
I can get on with my dumb little lecture.

Gyro Express was the first stop of the tour,
The building, a Ritzy's, that's to be sure.
With a fresh coat of paint like the Greek flag, white and blue,
From the exterior, it looked nearly new. 
Once in the door, I found an updated interior,
But the convex corner had its original mirri-ors.
Though the tiles and railings had all been replaced,
The dining room was still an elevated space. 
The next spot I went on this silly excursion,
Was a Mr. Hero, whose sign provided diversion.
A rare surviving G.D. Ritzy's sign post,
Had been converted by the restaurant's new host. 
The building, as well, was a sight to behold,
With original lighting on gooseneck-type poles.
The stripe on the left, too, was a Ritzy's hallmark.
Retail architecture like this far exceeds Walmart's. 
The inside was updated, but like at Gyro Express,
The mirrors remained, and I must confess,
That I sat and I thought as I caught myself staring.
Could these mirrors persist because they're load-bearing? 
Gyro City Grill was my next port of call,
And I'm ashamed to admit I took no inside pictures at all.
But the outside, of course, looked as Ritzy as ever.
And like Mr. Hero, its lights were not severed. 
Just outside of Columbus is the town of Grove City,
Where you'll find the fourth and final old Ritzy's.
These days the building serves as a Rally's
It looks good for its age, just like Sally O'Malley. 
Once you're inside, though, the decor is sparse.
I guess the decorator couldn't be arsed.
But at long last, I had found my white whale!
The Grove City Rally's had an original rail. 
With my journey concluding and my energy fading,
I ate at the new one, at which I've thrown too much shading.
I hope my long poem gave you a laugh or a grin.
All that's left to say is...

Monday, December 9, 2019

Cochon du Détroit

Rest in peace, Dearborn Heights Ponderosa 

My local Ponderosa
, the last Ponderosa in Metro Detroit, quietly closed for good a few weeks ago. It wasn’t entirely unexpected. Over the past year or so, meal prices had crept up while the generally poor quality of the food remained the same. The building that was at least 40 years old and was originally a Bonanza Steakhouse continued to slowly deteriorate. I imagine the owners couldn’t justify the cost of rehabbing the aging structure that housed a business with a razor thin profit margin, and closed, just like every other Ponderosa and Bonanza location within a 100 mile radius. Just as with the abrupt closure and eventual demolition of the nearby Dearborn Sign of the Beefcarver last year, the loss of my local Ponderosa served as a reminder that I should visit the local broken chains while I still can.

In 1948, before decades of economic turmoil, crime, and urban decay gave the city of Detroit and surrounding communities the negative connotations they have today, it was a pretty nice place to live. Thanks to years of government contracts during World War Two, the Detroit-area based Big Three automakers, and a handful of smaller independent manufacturers were flush with cash and churning out new vehicles for a car-hungry and equally cash-rich American public who hadn’t been able to buy new vehicles during the war. The people of Metro Detroit were gainfully employed by the booming automotive industry, and drive-in restaurants were the latest craze, perhaps thanks in part to so many Americans acquiring their long-awaited new vehicles after riding out a depression and a world war. One of the many new drive ins to open in this era was Bill’s Drive-In, on what was at the time called Jim Daly road in Dearborn Heights, Michigan.

"Je suis Napoléon! Grogne grogne!"

The proprietor, Bill Ihlenfeldt, quickly changed the name to the Daly Drive-In, taking the name from the street where his business was located, and a few members of his extended family soon opened Daly Drive-Ins of their own in nearby communities, adopting the slogan, “Get the Daly habit.” The newly minted chain also picked up an odd mascot, a cartoon pig dressed as Napoleon. A total of 17 Daly Drive ins opened in Metro Detroit between 1948 and 1974, but just as Napoleon found himself late in life, stripped of his empire, and exiled to Elba, the Daly Drive-In chain slowly shed locations as the local economy declined and drive-ins fell out of favor. Since 2003, Daly Restaurants has operated a just a single location on Plymouth Road in Livonia, Michigan. I stopped in for lunch over the weekend to visit Pig-Napoleon in exile and see what kind of experience I could have at the last Daly Drive-In. 

Business in the front...

...Googie in the back.

I’ve probably driven past the Livonia Daly Drive-In 50 times without noticing it. It’s housed in a nondescript brick building marked with a subdued sign. It was only after pulling into the parking lot that I noticed the vintage wavy sheetmetal of the drive-in canopy extending from the back of the building. No one seemed to be ordering from their cars on the gray early December day of my visit, so I headed inside to the dining room where I was greeted by dim lighting, red checkered Formica tabletops, and carpet with a pattern that reminded me of Space Invaders for the Atari 2600. Were it not for the large salad bar in the center of the dining room, the space could pass for the basement bar and rumpus room of any number of Metro Detroit homes built before 1980. I selected a booth near the back and studied the extensive laminated menu. 

Drop down, increase speed, and reverse direction!

All hail Livonia, the town I didn't make up!
Nicely printed menu. 
The definitive offerings seemed to be centered around “Daly Made Chili” and the Daily Burger, a hamburger dressed in a proprietary sauce, and I mean a hamburger. No cheeseburgers are offered on the menu, at least not on the Daily Drive-In's website. When my server showed up, I ordered a Daly Burger, a chili-covered Junior Dog, (the Junior Dog is a standard size-hot dog. The larger Daly Dog is a footlong.) a chocolate malt and access to the salad bar in an effort to sample a cross section of the menu. 

Any lettuce you want, so long as it's iceberg

After ordering, I went to assemble my salad, and found a salad bar that made me wonder why they had bothered. While I live a good retro salad bar like the ones at Rax and York Steak House, the one at the Daly Drive-In was a bit of a letdown. Only iceberg lettuce was available with just a handful of other fresh vegetables. The remainder of the salad bar’s chilled slots were occupied by potato and pasta salads and other various analogs that I didn’t bother sampling. 

I should go back sometime and eat several bowls of chili. 

I worked my way to the end of the bar where a cauldron of Daly Made Chili and the soup of the day simmered. I opted for chili after noting the soup du jour was cream of something I couldn’t immediately identify. I returned to my table with a meager salad and bowl brimming with chili in hand, and was greeted by the malt I had ordered, which I was pleased to find was perfectly blended with an ideal balance of chocolate and malt flavors. I picked at my salad of iceberg lettuce, tomato chunks, and red onions covered in Italian dressing while waiting for my chili to cool. 

The view from my table, dark wood and checkered Formica as far as the eye can see

As far as cities on the periphery of the Midwest go, most tend to think of Cincinnati of having the richest chili tradition, with its thin, savory chili used as a sauce to top spaghetti and hot dogs under mounds of shredded cheddar, but just like Cincinnati, Detroit has a also style of chili all it’s own that is distinctive from its more pervasive Tex-Mex cousin. Like the chili of The Queen City, Motor City chili is heavily influenced by Greek immigrants who served it in their restaurants, giving it a decidedly Mediterranean flavor profile in the process. Detroit chili is thicker and milder than its Cincinnati counterpart, but its flavor is no less complex. It’s more often than not eaten on hot dogs, at “Coney Island” diners often operated by the descendants of the Greek immigrants who conceived Detroit chili in the first place, but no one will look at you funny if you order a bowl of the stuff either. My bowl of Daly Made chili had the flavor and texture of the definitive Detroit-style chili, with the welcome addition of beans, making it alone well worth the price of the otherwise lackluster salad bar. 

My burger and coney dog arrived just as I was finishing my chili and losing what little interest I had in my salad. I examined the burger first, noting its quarter pound patty on a steamed sesame seed bun. It was topped only with the Daly Drive-In’s proprietary sauce which resembled salsa. My first bite yielded a flavor that was decidedly un-salsa like. It reminded me of pickle relish in texture, but with more than a hint of horseradish than pickles. I could immediately tell why there was nothing else on the burger. This was all the topping it needed. It was immensely flavorful and distinctive, unlike anything else I’ve encountered at any burger joint, including Miner-Dunn, who top their higher quality burgers with a lower quality relish. I even caught myself wishing that the Daly-Drive in sauce was what topped the West Coast style Big Boy instead of the glorified ketchup they call red relish. 

No sauce is more special than this. 

I moved onto the coney dog and found it topped with more Daly Made chili, this time without beans, and the yellow mustard and minced onions that are standard equipment on all coney dogs rolling off the assembly line in the Motor City. Predictably, it tasted like a Detroit style coney dog, but an especially well-executed one, with great blend of classically bold flavors and distinctive textures, all on a bun that didn’t fall apart as I ate it. I honestly don’t remember the last time I’d had a Detroit dog that good. 

The Daily Drive-In is my new favorite spot for Detroit style coney dogs. 

As I was settling my bill and walking back out to my car, it occurred to me that what made the Daly Drive-In good in December of 2019 were likely the same things that made the first one a hit in the summer of ‘48, the special sauce sauce, the chili, and the shakes. The salad bar wasn’t good because it didn’t have to be. It’s the classic drive-in food that gets people in the Daly habit and has for the past six decades, as drive-ins have become increasingly irrelevant and fortunes changed for the people of Metro Detroit. The salad bar was surely added in the '70s or '80s when salad bars were fashionable, and today only serves as a reminder of that time, when the poverty, crime, and blight that became closely associated with the city as the booming postwar economy faded, breaking Metro Detroit’s native drive-in chain in the process. 

Like all the places I visit, the Daly Drive-In has stood the test of time and survived against all odds. Today it serves as a window to a different time to weirdos like me who appreciate such things and as a fun place to grab a decent burger and a shake for regular unpretentious people who don't feel the need to write flowery prose about outdated burger joints or memorialize recently departed steakhouses. 

Use the code OLIVE15 at checkout for 15% your entire order for the rest of 2019!

Monday, December 2, 2019

No Good Thing Ever Dies

For the ninety-seventh time in my life, I am guilty of writing a blog post. This blog post. Of course, I doubt the ISPs will toss up any firewalls for that. Not for a silly old blogger like me.

I could probably sit down on some rainy Saturday afternoon and sort chain restaurant names into different etymological categories. Some are straightforward, based on the names of the restaurant’s founder, like Bob Evans or Howard Johnson. Others like Wendy’s and Big Boy are named for adorable children in the lives of the chains’ founders. You’ve also got the celebrity-endorsed chains like Arthur Treacher’s, Minnie Pearl’s, and Roy Rogers and the food-plus-edifice naming convention used by places like Waffle House and Pizza Hut, but fictional culinary royalty is my favorite fast food naming convention.

The fast food monarchy is full of benevolent rulers and pretenders to the throne. We all know Her Majesty the Dairy Queen, but there was also once a Burger Queen. Likewise there are independent Dairy Kings in Michigan and Tennessee. There are actually two Burger Kings. One rules over Mattoon, Illinois while the other Burger King’s dominion is the entirety of the world except Mattoon, Illinois. The theme of feuding Kings appears again chronically underrepresented fast food hot dog genre, as there was a time when there were two Wiener Kings.

Wiener King was founded in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1972 by Ronald Howard. (No, not that Ron Howard. There are also two Ron Howards.) The other Ron Howard found his company embroiled in a legal battle when he was sued for use of a name not by the more famous Ron Howard but by the other Wiener King, a two-location chain established a decade earlier in New Jersey coincidentally also named Wiener King. The outcome of the court case prohibited not-Opie from using the Wiener King name within a 40 mile radius of the New Jersey wiener kingdom but not-Richie Cunningham was allowed to use the name elsewhere in the US. 

With the legal battle behind them, the chain expanded rapidly and widely in the 1970s. I can’t find any definitive location counts, but there are mentions online of former locations as far away from Charlotte as Danville, Illinois. Wiener King dissolved in the early ‘80s, and today the only remnant of not-the-Arrested-Development-narrator’s Wiener King empire are Wiener Works, a suggestively-named three-unit chain in Fayetteville, North Carolina whose original location appears to be a minimally rebranded Wiener King, and a single restaurant in Mansfield, Ohio that is still called Wiener King. The litigious New Jersey Wiener King appears to be no more. A desire to experience Wiener King and a lack of time to drive to North Carolina from my Michigan home took me to the Mansfield Wiener King a few weeks ago.

At the start of the trip, I found I was so excited I could barely sit still or focus on my GPS. I think it’s the excitement only a trip to a broken chain can provide, a broken chain not experienced before where the food and atmosphere are uncertain. I hoped there would be original signage. I hoped to get a chili dog and stuff it in my face. I hoped the building would look as retro as it did on Google Street View. I hoped. 

Mansfield’s main claim to fame was that it stood in for small-town Maine in the 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, thanks to its charming downtown and derelict prison. Signs around town marked Shawshank filming sites as a rolled into town late on a Saturday morning. My schedule was such that I’d be having an early lunch shortly after the restaurant’s 11 AM open time. I arrived at 11:02 to find the doors locked with no signs of life inside. I was about to return to my car to check the Wiener King Facebook page where holiday and other closures are announced when a car pulled up. It’s drivers my window lowered, and I recognized the driver as Jimmy Smardjeff, (Yes, that Jimmy Smardjeff!) owner of the Mansfield Wiener King, whose photo has appeared in various local news stories about his efforts to keep the restaurant open after he inherited the wiener crown from his father, who opened the restaurant in a former Arthur Treacher’s building in 1976. 

Instantly friendly and personable, His Majesty, the Wiener King of Mansfield apologized for the delay and invited me in as he unlocked the door and called to an unseen employee who had presumably been firing up the various commercial appliances for the day. That employee took my order, and after I had paid, King Jimmy made small talk with me about local politics as he prepared my drink. I normally dislike small talk, but I found King Jimmy’s demeanor charming and intoxicatingly friendly. I concluded that had the effortless grace befitting his royal title. 

I took a seat while King Jimmy and his curia regis set to work preparing my order. While I was waiting, another customer came in from the nearby Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and placed a $90 order to literally feed an entire racing team. I was concerned that the massive order would overwhelm the restaurant’s small crew, but my order came up before she had paid, and her order was ready before I finished my meal.

King Burger Deluxe

Wiener King Special, a Carolina style slaw-topped chili dog. 

Standard Sweet Stuffers pie rolled in cinnamon sugar

My tray was loaded up with a Wiener King Special, a southern style hot dog topped with chili, mustard, onions and coleslaw, plus a King Burger Deluxe, which fittingly enough resembled a Whopper in terms of size and toppings, and a fried apple pie, which turned out to be a Sweet Stuffers brand pie. Sweet Stuffers are seemingly a mainstay of broken chains everywhere. I’ve previously encountered them at Arthur Treacher’s and two different bootleg Burger Chefs.

The Wiener King Special was light on chili but heavy on coleslaw, but its taste was spot on, reminding me of the slaw topped chili dogs that are ubiquitous in the Carolinas. Likewise, the Kingburger was a perfectly serviceable fast food burger. What was really impressive, however were my surroundings.
Paper hats, apple pie wrappers, and Three Stooges wall art that would fit right in at Ground Round

It’s clear that efforts were made to preserve as much of the heyday of the Wiener King brand as possible. The menu board is a nicely preserved unit from the 1970s, and seemingly only the prices have changed. Old Wiener King employee name tags, paper hats, and print ads lined the walls. King Jimmy clearly makes efforts to preserve the endangered brand and his family’s legacy. The Mansfield Wiener King is the type of working fast food museum that I’m always delighted to stumble upon.

Regular readers will be completely unsurprised to learn I'd love to hang these print ads in my house.  
The view from my table had a funky orange and yellow color palate. 

Local rumors and memes posted to the Wiener King Facebook page suggest that Wiener King owes its survival in the face of the closure of nearly all other Wiener Kings, and indeed many other fast food restaurants in the same part of town, to some connection to organized crime. It’s a rumor that King Jimmy perpetuates in good fun. In truth, the long term survival of the Mansfield Wiener King is the result of two generations of dedicated ownership by King Jimmy and his father before him. Long live King Jimmy and long live Wiener King.

Sometimes it makes me sad though, Wiener King being a broken chain. I have to remind myself that some restaurant chains aren’t meant to have hundreds of franchised locations. Their menu and decor are too special to be modernized into the increasingly bland and homogeneous fast food landscape. When you find a place like Wiener King, the part of you that knows it’s a sin to renovate an old mansard roof McDonald’s does rejoice, but still, the place you live is that much more drab and empty without a Wiener King nearby. I guess I just wish I had a Wiener King in my town.