Des Plaines, Illinois: Seeking out the Retro

Des Plaines Theatre, opened 1925
Des Plaines Theatre, opened 1925.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Due to some family business my parents, grandmother and I found ourselves in the vicinity of Des Plaines, Illinois around lunchtime on April 23rd.  Like Evanston, Des Plaines is a suburb of Chicago.  Walking around, it’s easy to mentally blot out the modern cars and buildings and imagine being back in time.  You don’t see many retro looking theatres anymore like Des Plaines’s.  Opened in 1925, it’s had a troubled history since a fire in the 1980s.

The Choo Choo, a railroad themed burger joint
The Choo-Choo, a railroad themed burger joint

As a retired railroader and rail fan, my Dad wanted to eat at The Choo-Choo, a burger joint opened by the Ballowe family in 1951 and apparently little changed since then.  A sign on the door informs you that you are entering the year 1953.  It points out, tongue-in-cheek, that only cash is accepted because credit cards haven’t been invented yet.  Of course, I’m pretty sure they didn’t charge $9.75 for a cheeseburger back then!

Interior of The Choo Choo
Interior of The Choo Choo

The interior is railway themed, with faded artwork hanging on dated, wood paneled walls.  The place appears insanely popular with young children, no doubt due to the meals delivered from the kitchen on model railroad flatcars, hand-operated whistle used by staff to spread birthday cheer, and the vintage Milwaukee Road ride (the sort you used to see outside grocery stores…the vehicles that sort of shake back and forth).  I suspect the rowdy young crowd is responsible for the strict prohibition against “table switching”.

Choo Choo Model RR
The Choo-Choo’s model railroad delivers the food.  It looks like they rotate the rolling stock.  This particular day we had the Milwaukee Road.

The food wasn’t particularly good.  Our burgers and fries looked about as appetizing as those at an elementary school cafeteria and didn’t taste much better.  The cookies and cream milkshake was quite good, though it’s admittedly hard to make a bad milkshake.

Mmmm, microwave fresh brand-name apple pie delivered on a flat car.   Doesn't get any better than this!
Mmmm, microwave-fresh brand-name apple pie delivered on a flat car. Doesn’t get any better than this!

My father ordered a piece of apple pie for dessert.  Our server warmed it up in the microwave in front, but sent it back to the kitchen so it could come out on the train.  The pie was very good, he reported.  The staff thanked him for his compliment, then let him in on a secret.  It’s Sara Lee, they said.

Des Plaines is home to another vintage burger joint (well sort of).  This restaurant is somewhat more of a household name.  The Choo-Choo’s history page tells it best:

The opening of another hamburger joint a few blocks away by a Mr. Ray Kroc did little to dissolve the Ballowes’ excitement. James Ballowe was just sure that he would be able to beat out the hamburger joint dubbed McDonald’s, because of the novelty of the train. He also donned the proper attire: an engineer’s cap, red bandanna around his neck, and a whistle he would blow whenever he sent the train around. And according to Marilyn, Ray Kroc didn’t think his restaurant would surpass the business the Ballowes’ were getting. He even paid the Ballowes’ a visit and reassured them that his restaurant would be no competition. He told them, “I don’t have a place for people to sit down.”

McDonald's #1 Store Museum
McDonald’s #1 Store Museum

The Choo-Choo appears to have weathered the years quite well.  That’s actually more than can be said for its competitor…at least the building.  Kroc’s restaurant, opened in 1955, was demolished in 1984 and replaced by a replica known as the McDonald’s #1 Store Museum (there’s also a functioning McDonald’s across the street).  Despite the name, it wasn’t actually the first McDonald’s.  Rather, it’s the first of those opened under the auspices of Kroc’s McDonald’s Systems, Inc, later known as the McDonald’s Corporation.  It was Kroc’s company, not the McDonald’s brothers, that turned McDonald’s into a worldwide fast food powerhouse.

Now I perhaps should mention here that I generally avoid fast food restaurants like the plague.  I’m fairly certain that I will never mention fast food in this blog again after today, unless it’s to make fun of ridiculous fast food signs in other countries.  Actually, one day, centuries from now, when historians reflect on the collapse of the once proud American civilization, I believe they will trace the seeds of destruction to precisely three things: the invention of fast food, the rise of “reality television”, and the popularization of the word “selfie”.  (Update on July 30, 2016: I’m adding addiction to Pokémon Go to the list.) But, I digress.  Even fast food can be interesting…at least when it’s 1950s fast food.

McDonald's sign
McDonald’s sign

Unfortunately, it seems I arrived a few weeks too early.  The museum is only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day and the vintage cars in the front lot were covered up.  Still, the menu was visible from the other side of the fence.  Interestingly, the most expensive item on the menu back then was a milkshake (20 cents, compared to 15 cents for a hamburger and 19 cents for a cheeseburger).  These days, burgers are far more expensive than shakes.  Maybe shakes were more of a novelty then, or just more manpower intensive.

It’s interesting to note that, as The Choo-Choo history mentions, this first McDonald’s was exclusively drive-up, with no indoor seating.  Personally, I cringe every time I see a long line of cars at a drive-thru, considering the unnecessary waste of fuel as the cars idle for like 10 minutes each in line at dinnertime.  I’m almost pleased to learn that it’s not just modern Americans who are too lazy to get out of their vehicles to eat…it seems our God- and Communist-fearing forbearers were equally lazy!


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