Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Johnsen's Blue Top Drive-In

Earlier this year, Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader compiled a handy listing of best suburban Chicago eateries that was organized by region. Of course, I was surprised to see many places I'd never even heard of on his list for the South/Southwest Suburbs (as much daily time as I waste reading local foodie media, I'm never as gastro-literate as I think I am). Among the more intriguing entries in the article was about a true old-school drive-in (Johnsen's Blue Top) open since 1936 quietly flying below the radar in northwest Indiana. Perhaps even more amazing was the mention of a second old-fashioned burger joint (called Miner Dunn, nearly as ancient as Johnsen's) located on the same busy stretch of U.S. 41 in Highland. As I read this, images of Radiator Springs from the Disney Cars movie immediately popped up in my head. Could there be some sort of long-lost, magical segment of pre-interstate nostalgia hiding just on the other side of the state line where the cars all have tail fins, the women wear poodle skirts, and the fries are cooked in rendered beef fat? This I needed to check out. My original plan was to try visiting both restaurants in one trip (I actually did something like this once in downtown Detroit with American Coney Dog and its neighbor, Lafayette Coney Dog, and lived to tell about it), but with the progeny in tow one Thursday night and only a 25-minute drive to get there, I opted to just stop at Johnsen's this time.

When we first pulled into the parking lot on this gloomy evening, I wasn't even sure if the place was open (it was completely empty). The exterior of the building was all decked out in blue and pink neon, but the faded carhop menu signs and the lack of customers gave the impression of a drive-in abruptly abandoned during some apocalyptic exodus. My initial fear subsided when the one and only server popped her head outside and directed us to the side door to access the dining room. Once inside, I suddenly felt as if I'd wandered onto a set from some 1950s tv show (see photo below), right down to the funky chandeliers, striped wallpaper, garage sale landscape paintings, and vinyl booths.

On the surface, the dining room certainly looked the part, but it was pretty obvious that the whole complex could use some TLC (indeed, the owner is looking to sell the property). The stained ceiling tiles, broken toy prize machine, and Access Hollywood blaring on the tv (why not Elvis on a jukebox instead?) sent a clear message that this was a restaurant currently trying to coast by on its outdated rep (I'm pretty sure I never saw the manager look up from his crossword puzzle the entire time we were there). My hope was that the lackluster attitude didn't extend to the food.

Per Sula's recommendation, I ordered the house specialty, a Big Ben (double cheeseburger) with everything, garlic fries, and the famous Johnsen's black cow (root beer with a scoop of vanilla ice cream). My kids also got black cows (an incentive I had dangled earlier to secure their buy-in for this little junket) and hot dogs instead of burgers.

Much like the restaurant itself, my Big Ben appeared enticing (see photo above), but was lacking something....love? The patties were thicker than I expected (not the thin, crispy-edged style that is allegedly indigenous to northwest Indiana), with a nice char from the grill on which they were flame-cooked. The meat might have been a tad overdone and its flavor seemed somewhat bland (cheap product? no seasonings?), just not connecting with my taste buds. I really wanted to like this burger better. No such conflict occurred with the garlic fries, which were insipid, soggy potatoes sitting in a pool of grease. Although my kids (especially Hackknife Jr., who was ecstatic about getting to try out a Star Wars pinball game) were fine with their dinners, I had to conclude that my favorite parts of the journey were the black cow (good, but not terrific) and the $3.99/gallon gas I was able to refill my tank with on the way back home (a full quarter cheaper than in Illinois - stupid gas taxes). After about 40 minutes, we left with not a single other diner having walked through the door.

To summarize - I fear for the immediate future of Johnsen's. A great throwback to an earlier era just shouldn't be allowed to fade into oblivion like they are (a fate the current management seems resigned to). At the same time, I sense opportunity here. A savvy restauranteur willing to put some cash into updating the place a little and hire a cook that knows how to make a good burger could surely draw carloads of city foodies down here (no, I'm not that buyer, but I would be happy to patronize such a theoretical establishment). Here's hoping that the neon doesn't go permanently dark soon...

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