|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.|
|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.
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