The Drive-In Restaurant Is Alive and Well and Living in Akron, Ohio
Opened in 1934, Swenson's has been a part of life in this Rust Belt city through good times and bad.
My first visit to Swenson's Restaurant, everything went wrong. Let us start with the fact that out of nine Swenson's locations, I picked the one pretty much everyone else in the Greater Akron area—that's Akron, as in Ohio—had chosen for their dinner that evening. Also, I made the mistake of getting out of my car.
Swenson's has a lot of fans here in the one-time Rubber Capital of the World—hometown icon LeBron James is just one particularly high profile supporter. Unless you have a modicum of time on your hands, don't get an Akron native started on the subject of Swenson's, because there's a conversation that might take a while.
This was about the extent of my Swenson's know-how, but that was okay, because I was here, finally, to learn. Pulling up to the North Akron location, and seeing no drive-thru option, I parked the car, as one does, and walked over—as one also does—to what appeared to be the restaurant.
The building was smaller than one might expect, for such a popular place—perhaps there would at least be a walk-up window? Plus, it was hard to miss the giant menu, posted on the side of the building. A menu I'd never laid eyes on. What, exactly, made Swenson's, now roughly 80 years young, such an icon in the region? Surely, the menu would offer clues.
Turns out, doing anything yourself at Swenson's is not allowed.
Within seconds, a fresh-faced young carhop in full uniform, sporting expertly coiffed red hair—on loan from the 1940's, surely—hailed my arrival from far across the lot, racing in my direction, a man on a mission, asking me what it was I needed, and, if it was all the same to me, would I kindly get back in the car?
I'd broken the first rule of Swenson's. There was no restaurant here at all. My car was the restaurant. A tray hooked into the driver's side window would be my table. If there were questions to be asked, if I wanted to look at a menu, I'd just have to wait my turn. Order? One in a small army of uniformed teens would be right there.
Common sense to Swenson's loyalists, surely, but being a child of a part of the world where such things disappeared long ago—my hometown didn't even get a Sonic, a phenomenon I admittedly have yet to experience, until a few years ago— there's clearly something of a learning curve, when it comes to drive-ins. No matter—their restaurant, their rules.
So enthusiastically—and vocally—committed to keeping order was our young hero, the entire lot was by that time sitting up and paying attention, eyeing me as I inconspicuously sloped off back to my vehicle. Me, the harbinger of anarchy. Bringer of trouble. The rule breaker. The one who didn't know. It was high school, all over again.
With a considerable backlog of waiting diners, nobody came to my aid—I watched as the staff darted in and out of the kitchens, and among the cars, trays piled high with burgers and fries, waiting my turn. It was dinner and a show, except all I was getting was the show, and what I wanted just then, more than anything, was dinner. Eventually, I found mine—elsewhere.
When Wesley T. Swenson opened his first drive-in restaurant on South Hawkins Avenue, back in 1934, Akron was, like the rest of America, doing its level best to survive the Great Depression. Akron, having recently been one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, was now facing rather catastrophic unemployment rates. All was not lost, however—some of the city's best days as tire maker to the world were yet to come, which meant plenty of hungry people on the prowl for hamburgers and milkshakes. From the considerable highs to the gut-wrenching lows, Swenson's was there through it all, and remains so. They've even been expanding, lately, into the Cleveland suburbs. Late last year, there were rumors that the company was looking at a site all the way over in Columbus, the state capital.
The original Swenson's location remains in business, near the corner of Hawkins Avenue and West Market Street—back in those early days, it's said that this was the fringe of town, with dirt tracks for streets. Today, this is a relatively pleasant part of Akron, just a short drive from one of the city's most impressive residential districts. There is a sparkling Whole Foods 365 store just around the corner, along with a nice-looking independent coffee house, and a place to stock up on yoga pants.
On the day I showed up to Swenson's for lunch, right at the stroke of 11, the lot was quickly filling up. The carhops—many more of them than I'd seen in action at my last attempt, were already darting, hummingbird-like, in and out of a growing collection of waiting vehicles.
Clearly, my first visit hadn't been a one-off. People in Akron like Swenson's a great deal, and when I finally lay eyes on a menu, I can see why. For starters, there are the prices, which are as retro as you like. A hamburger is $2. Fries are $2. A milkshake, as little as $2.70. There are sirloin strip steak sandwiches for less than $5; the house chili, made fresh every day, a steal at $2.75. You can have a fried bologna sandwich, Sloppy Joe, a fried whitefish dinner. Then, there is the Galley Boy.
Touted as Swenson's "award-winning" "signature" creation, the Galley Boy is like a museum piece, an edible museum piece, something you wouldn't dream of putting on a menu now, at least not until after you've tried one. It's a double burger at heart, but with some very memorable tweaks. What appears to be the house ranch dressing, really more like a tangy tartar sauce, goes on one side, barbecue sauce on the other, there are two beef patties of reasonable heft, thick enough to actually sink your teeth into, and there is some thoroughly melted cheese.
The insides of the Galley Boy are an unholy mess, but the bun is more than up to the task—this is a very good bun, at least for a fast food restaurant. Not fancy, but also with some oomph to it, a presence, rather than the usual tasteless air-trapping devices you get, like the people who make it actually have some faint acquaintance with what good bread is supposed to taste like. Together, it all works. You don't think it's going to work, but it does.
Like other hallowed, hyper-regional burger halls, say Dick's Drive-In in Seattle, or Pal's Sudden Service in Eastern Tennessee, Swenson's and its Galley Boy may never travel terribly well, but I defy anyone who's tried one to pass through Akron, and not feel the faintest of longings for a return to the scene of this delicious crime against convention. Turns out, Swenson's doesn't mind breaking a few rules of its own.
Riding high after hitting the elusive obscure burger motherlode, I of course had to order as much of everything else as I could manage, just to see how deep this Swenson's business goes. Onion rings were chunky, breadcrumbed, and nicely submissive to the bite. A generous portion came out hot, for $2.25. Fries were fine, long, a bit floppy—skip them and go for the Potato Teezers, a Swenson's favorite, it turns out, for very good reason.
Who, after all, wouldn't love a cheddar jalapeno hash brown nugget run through the deep fryer, crunchy on the outside, creamy and piping hot on the inside? These are essentially croquetas, just by another name. They are sold for just $2.50, and there were plenty of them—out of everything sampled, the Galley Boy ($3.65) and the Teezers were what I'd order again, without hesitation.
There was and is more, so much more—the drinks menu, let's start there, which almost requires a translator. There is the California (that's a grape drink), the Florida (that's an orange drink), a Mint Whip (a creamy, minty ginger ale), you have an entire range of Phosphates, and then there are far too many milkshake flavors to choose from. I tried a shocking number of them, and must confess that nearly all of them suffered, at least that day, from atrociously sloppy construction. The Mint Whip stood out, simply because it was so unusual—a refreshing antidote to a humid summer day in Ohio.
And then came dessert. Here was another section of the menu with its share of surprises; the marquee item, however, is a deep-fried cheesecake chimichanga, called a Xango. I ordered one plain, dusted in cinnamon sugar. It came out nicely golden brown, and big enough to feed three people—a steal at $3.50. After all of the excitement, I expected I'd manage a bite or two, but before I knew it, the thing was half gone, I was nearly buried in cinnamon sugar, and so was my corner of the car, which this time I didn't leave, not even to go hunting for more napkins. After all, this was a drive-in. I knew the rules now. All I had to do was flash my lights, and watch the carhops come running.