For over three years now, I’ve been able to boast that I’ve been to every operating G.D. Ritzy’s location. It’s an esoteric flex, but as a lifelong Ritzy’s fan it’s something I’m proud of. It was the disappearance of my beloved G.D. Ritzy’s from the Lexington, Kentucky market in the early ‘90s that I imprinted on as a kindergartner that sparked a lifelong interest in tracking down surviving locations of not quite defunct restaurant chains, so it’s safe to say that without G.D. Ritzy’s, this blog may well not exist. It felt like an exciting kickoff to my then-new blog in the spring of 2018 when a road trip led me to all six surviving G.D. Ritzy’s locations. When the chain’s founder, Graydon D. Webb and his family opened a seventh location in their native Columbus, Ohio, I was there within a week of their opening so I could continue to brag about having visited all operating locations of my favorite restaurant chain. A little while later, I had the G.D. Ritzy’s logo tattooed on my right arm in commemoration of my trip and in tribute to my favorite restaurant. While I’m not certain I’m G.D. Ritzy’s number one fan, I think it’s safe to say I’m at least in the top five.
|Yes, I am wearing a Hills tshirt, and yes, that is my real face.|
As with all the places I visit, I take pride in my expertise regarding how each surviving G.D. Ritzy’s is both unique and similar to its brethren, and how much it may or may not have changed in the three decades since most locations of the 120 unit chain called it quits. If one were to ask me, or at least not explicitly tell me to not talk about G.D. Ritzy’s, I’d tell them that the three locations in Evansville, Indiana, all of which have the same owners, are my favorite. Their art deco decor and classic diner food are remarkably close to what I remember at the locations in Lexington during my early childhood. They may have pared down a few slow selling menu items and added a couple new flavors of made in-house ice cream, but the Evansville locations are impeccably maintained 1980s time capsules complete with elevated dining rooms that sit a couple feet higher than the floor by the order counter, marble tabletops, hexagonal tile, and big band music played through reproduction teardrop-shaped Seeburg jukebox speakers. Every time I’m fortunate enough to eat in an Evansville G.D. Ritzy’s, I’m immediately transported back to early childhood, and that experience keeps me coming back.
|One of three Evansville, Indiana G.D. Ritzy's locations|
An hour away in Owensboro, Kentucky, there are two additional Ritzy’s locations. I say Ritzy’s because by the time they had opened, the chain had dropped the vaguely profane sounding initials from its signage and branding. I’ve heard from a reliable source that the owner of these locations was the last new franchisee to open a Ritzy’s before the chain declared bankruptcy in 1991. The Frederica Street location is clearly a purpose built Ritzy’s building, identical in dimensions and shape to its counterparts in Evansville, but with a newer color scheme and a re-imagined interior designed to evoke the bright and optimistic aesthetic of the 1950s more than the art deco 1940s theme of the older locations in Evansville. A second Owensboro location on Highway 54 is in a newer building with none of the Ritzy’s architectural cues, but similar interior decor. The food at both Owensboro locations is excellent as it is in Evansville. A few additional unique ice cream flavors are offered, as are baked potatoes. Evansville evidently dropped, or never saw fit to pick up the hot potatoes. Both locations are perfectly fine, but fail to be as immersive and magical as their Evansville counterparts in my deeply subjective and biased opinion.
|Ritzy's of Owensboro, a later iteration of the early building design; notice the lack of initials unintentionally implying blasphemy.|
The Huntington, West Virginia G.D. Ritzy’s is the oldest in continuous operation, having opened in 1983, the same year the chain won an award for its chocolate ice cream. Ironically, the Huntington G.D. Ritzy’s is the one surviving location that never made its own ice cream. I was lucky enough to talk to the location’s original owner, who told me that making ice cream from scratch never made business sense for his one location the way it might have for a franchisee operating multiple units who could make ice cream at one restaurant and distribute it to their other nearby locations. On my most recent visit there, the Huntington G.D. Ritzy’s was selling Hershey’s ice cream. Their menu has seen some additions and subtractions over the years, but the Big Bopper fried bologna sandwich is still present on the menu. It’s a glaring omission in Evansville, Owensboro, and Columbus. The Huntington Ritzy’s recently changed ownership, and the new owners have been trying new menu items like premium soups and salads that seem out of place to me, but I take G.D. Ritzy’s more seriously than the average person. They also offer brunch on weekends unlike any other Ritzy’s I’m aware of past or present. The decor, like in Evansville, is what I remember from childhood, though it feels rough around the edges. The patina of decades of continuous operation is more obvious, perhaps the result of the limited resources of a single owner, versus the consortium of owners of the Evansville locations who keep their locations feeling bright and new despite them being closer to their 40th year in operation than their 30th.
|The weathered and worse for wear G.D. Ritzy's of wild, wonderful, West Virginia|
The newest Ritzy’s location in Columbus operated by chain founder Graydon Webb and family offers a limited menu of burgers, fries, hot dogs, chili, the famous Ritzy’s PB&J, ice cream, and little else. Sandwiches are topped to order behind a glass counter in front of you, similar to Subway, or if you like, the Canadian burger chain, Harvey’s. The building is a heavily renovated 1950s vintage A&W which bares little resemblance to the Ritzy’s buildings of the ‘80s, but does have nods to the design of the earlier locations here and there. It’s located in a trendy, dare I say ritzy, neighborhood, so efforts were made to make the place feel upscale. Early on, they used fresh cut fries rather than frozen, but have since switched back to frozen, presumably because my opinion that the fresh cut fries were mushy and gross was widely held. Buns are fresh-baked, while other Ritzy’s seem to get mass-produced buns delivered. My one lingering complaint about the Columbus location is that the prices are a good 50% higher than at other Ritzy’s. It’s seriously tough to get out of there for under $20 for a sandwich, fries and ice cream, but I suspect it’s in line with food prices of other restaurants in the (very hip) area. They offer the classic ice cream flavors, but also try out new ones on occasion. I had two scoops of a very nice carrot cake flavor on my last visit to the tune of $7 before tip.
|The Columbus Ritzy's is a modern take on a classic. (I think that big fiberglass burger is from a Max and Erma's.)|
Along with the above knowledge gathered from my travels to every surviving (G.D.) Ritzy’s, I’ve carried a shameful secret. There was an eighth location in operation that I had yet to visit. Distance, adult responsibilities, and a pesky little global pandemic kept me away until this past weekend when I finally made it to South Carolina to eat at Burky’s Grill, the bootleg G.D. Ritzy’s of Myrtle Beach.
Before developing G.D. Ritzy’s, you might recall, Graydon Webb was a Wendy’s executive, and restaurant industry veteran Wayne “Burky” Burkart was one of his esteemed colleagues, also in the employ of Dave Thomas. When Webb opened his own restaurant chain, Burkart became a franchisee, operating six G.D. Ritzy’s locations in South Carolina starting in 1983, keeping them going longer than 95% of other Ritzy’s locations. Burkart sold his restaurants, and attempted to retire in 2000, but had repurchased and renamed the Myrtle Beach G.D. Ritzy’s by 2003. It’s operated as Burky’s Grill ever since. I had seen photos of the place for years, and the interior and food bore a striking resemblance to what I knew to be Ritzy’s signature look and fare. I was eager to visit, but circumstances never worked out until they did.
It was a Saturday afternoon in late July when I found myself in Myrtle Beach along with what seemed to be the majority of the population of South Carolina and surrounding states. I had picked the exact wrong time to visit a beach town whose local economy is based primarily on tourism. After an hour and a half of dodging overloaded minivans and SUVs packed with caterwauling children, incessant and senseless grandparents, and long-suffering parents, not to mention the hordes of bright and cacophonous full size pick-em-up trucks lifted sky-high in the front and lowered to the ground in the rear in what’s known as a “Carolina squat” stance. I spied a friendly and vaguely familiar looking green sign on the horizon.
|A nonstandard Ritzy's design, or perhaps an early iteration of the more common curved corner, befinned building.|
|Remnant of the original flat railing and the new tubular railing against the backdrop of Ritzy's iconic hexagonal tiles.|
I had arrived at Burky’s Grill. I found a spot at the edge of the crowded parking lot and took a minute to admire the building. It lacked G.D. Ritzy’s distinctive curved corner and decorative fin, but it was clad in the chain’s familiar white stucco, and its entrance was in roughly the right spot. Once through that entrance I felt as if I had walked into my own home, and not only because the original G.D. Ritzy’s “TIME TO EAT” wall clock above the order counter was identical to the one I have hanging in my living room. It had the familiar, inviting look and feel of a 1980s vintage Ritzy’s interior complete with the original tile, furniture, and lighting. There were minor changes here and there. There were spots where the original flat railings had been cut flush with the floor and replaced with tubular ones that allowed the order line a wider berth. The patterned green carpeting in the elevated dining area had been replaced with solid green carpet, and the booths which would have originally been green had been reupholstered with red vinyl. Despite the minor changes, it was still clearly a Ritzy’s interior, and that’s a theme that continued after I worked my way through the order line and received my food.
In an effort to experience as much of the menu as possible for the sake of comparison, I ordered three entrees as well as fries and a drink to see how much resemblance each item bore to what I might find at other G.D. Ritzy’s locations.
If one were to order fries at any of the seven locations using the (G.D.) Ritzy’s name, one would receive the thinnest imaginable objects that could still be considered fries without edging into potato stick territory. They’re roughly ⅛ inch wide, and similar to what one might see at a Steak ‘n Shake or Freddy’s Steakburgers. Burky’s fries, while still in shoestring territory, are closer to ¼ inch, nearly identical in size and shape to McDonald’s fries, and equally similar in texture and flavor.
|Original tables, chairs, light fixtures, and stainless wall trim.|
|More original wall trim and lighting, plus the aforementioned original Seeburg speaker|
The topping on my chili dog was close, if not identical, to the mild and tangy chili offered at every Ritzy’s. (In Evansville, they give you the option of adding an additional kick to your chili by placing on every table bottles of hot sauce, and what I call Cincinnati Juice, which is a mysterious brownish liquid that imparts the flavor of Cincinnati chili to anything it touches.) It was the dog itself that was off. It lacked the snappy natural casing and strong garlic flavor of what I know to be a Ritzy’s hot dog. Burky’s dog was skinless, and comparatively bland, clearly from a different manufacturer.
|There was no Cincinnati Juice to be had at Burky's but here's some next to the hot sauce on a tabletop condiment caddy in Evansville.|
|No strawberry slices here.|
My luxury PB&J was similarly not quite authentically Ritzy’s. It had the requisite untoasted Texas toast (Texas bread?) smooth peanut butter, strawberry jam, and crushed peanuts, but lacked the fresh strawberry slices that make G.D. Ritzy’s PB&J extra luxurious, but in Burky’s defense, I imagine it’s a pain to keep fresh, sliced strawberries on hand for use on only a single menu item.
|Burky's take on G.D. Ritzy's Double Ritz cheeseburger. It's hard to see here, but the patties were upside down.|
Of the items I ordered, my burger was the closest to what I know to be authentically G.D. Ritzy’s, and while like the fries, a G.D. Ritzy’s burger is quite similar to what you’d find at Steak ‘n Shake or Freddy’s, it’s distinct from more mainstream fast food burgers, and feels premium by comparison. During preparation, the burger patties are formed into balls of raw meat and smashed under a spatula on a ripping hot flat top grill, giving them crispy edges and a juicy center. The burgers cook almost completely before being flipped to their respective B-sides to linger on the grill for less than a minute to finish. This cooking process gives the patties a distinctive crispy convex top and a soft concave bottom. I mention this, because the patties on my burger were placed on it upside down from what I’ve experienced not only at Ritzy’s, but at every other place that serves this style of hamburger. I laughed audibly upon noticing, drawing more attention than I had taking pictures of the counter and dining area, because like everything else at Burky’s, the burger was just shy of being identical to Ritzy’s.
|Marble, tile, green, iconic textures all.|
Whether it was the solid green carpet, round chrome railings, the too-soft hot dog, the berryless PB&J, the too-fat fries or the upside down burger, the place was a knockoff Ritzy’s to a comedic degree, which isn’t to say that any of the food was bad. I ate more of it than I should have considering it was my second lunch of the day. It still tasted 85% authentic Ritzy’s and 95% objectively good. The locals, or at least, the tourists in town for more than just lunch, agreed with me because the place remained packed for the duration of my visit well past the typical lunch rush. The table of Mormon missionaries behind me and the table of motorcyclists and their helmets to my right served as an almost too on the nose illustration of Burky’s, which is to say G.D. Ritzy’s mass appeal.
|The view from the top of the elevated dining room.|
The crowd was all the more remarkable because of the omission of hand scooped ice cream from the menu. The G.D. Ritzy’s ice cream counter with its 16 flavors in 5 gallon drums in a glass-topped freezer were nowhere to be found. In their place stood a soft serve machine and a menu of soft-serve based desserts. I didn’t bother ordering ice cream due in equal parts to the dearth of authenticity and the fact that I’d eaten two large meals that day and had plans for a third before I would be able to chug some Alka Seltzer and rest my weary head. They seemed to be making the most of the soft serve though, as there was an extensive menu of soft serve based shakes, sundaes, and Blizzard-like concoctions. The lack of ice cream is easy to forgive in Burky’s case. As I learned in Huntington, making ice cream from scratch for a single restaurant location doesn’t make economic sense, and while Ritzy’s ice cream was not present on the menu, Burky’s had every menu item that at least one Ritzy’s or another lacked. They offer the baked potatoes only available at the Owensboro Ritzy’s, the Big Bopper fried bologna sandwich only available at the Huntington Ritzy’s, and the steamed vegetable plate that they only offer in Evansville. If Ritzy’s is your favorite band and Burky’s is a cover band, they can be forgiven for not playing one of Ritzy’s hits in their set and striking a sour note once in a while if they play literally every deep cut.
And Zapediah wept, seeing as he had no more G.D. Ritzy’s to conquer.
Finally making it to the eighth surviving G.D. Ritzy’s has rewarded me with a sense of fulfillment, but also a sense of sorrow. My most recent trip has me nearing the bottom of the barrel of broken chain locations that I have yet to visit, at least in the eastern half of the U.S. Without new fodder for new blog posts, this silly little project of mine quickly devolves into an ouroboros gobbling down its own tail as if it's dripping with delicious Cincinnati Juice. The out of place, self-referential rhyming posts I wrote last year are the type of drivel I put out when I can’t visit broken chains, and nobody wants more of that. So I implore you, dear reader. Get in contact with me in the comments below, my email, Facebook, or Instagram, (Nothing good ever happens on Twitter.) and let me know what broken chains you’d like to see me visit next.