Before Arby’s, before KFC, before the Golden Arches, there was the Convention Grill. Tucked into what was once the “downtown” for the
While many a retro café has tried to duplicate the look, the sleek, stainless-steel-and-neon exterior of the Grill is the real thing. And so is the interior. Step into the front dining area and you’ve stepped back in time. Dark-brown wooden booths line the walls, which are painted a rather sickly shade of golden yellow – or maybe it’s the greenish glare from the fluorescent lights that makes them that color. Brown-and-gold patterned linoleum is underfoot, and against one wall, there’s a jukebox loaded with pop favorites of the past 70 years, so you never know what’s going to be playing. Tonight, it’s Iron Butterfly’s Inna Gadda Davida.
Red vinyl-covered swivel stools face a stainless steel counter, and behind it stretches a huge open grill, a score of hamburger patties sizzling and popping, while their accompanying buns fry on a thin, glistening layer of grease. Speaking of grease, I won’t be doing any fat-sodium-calories tally in this review. But note – the food may be cooked in grease, it’s not greasy.
The side dining room takes you away from the crowd of folks waiting to get seated (during the dinner hour, there’s always a crowd) and the fast-paced action around the grill, with cooks flipping and building burgers, wait staff whirling up shakes and squeezing by with loaded trays held high. It’s quieter and more spacious, although some misbegotten “update” in the 80s added mirrors and a teal-and-gold, zigzagged-pattered wallpaper border.
But the wait staff – I should probably say waitresses because I’ve never seen a guy server – hasn’t been updated and are still clad in uniforms right out of the heyday of drive-ins, complete with aprons with a pocket for their order book. They’re attentive, friendly, fast and no-nonsense – just like good diner servers should be. As soon as we’re seated, Julie pops over with plastic tumblers of ice water and asks if us if we’d like anything else to drink.
Of course we do. What we want is one of the Grill’s fabulous, made-with-real-ice-cream malts or milk shakes. Yes, they make malts with real malt powder. With flavors that range from banana to butterscotch, it’s hard to choose, but my friend and I both settle on chocolate-coffee (not mocha, chocolate-coffee). There’s a new twist – the Grill now offers half orders on malts and milk shakes. As we waver, Julie reassures us that it’s not really a paltry half order, more like three-quarters. We both opt for the half.
That’s actually a wise move because the shakes are always served first. Creamy, flavor-packed shakes poured (or more like glopped) right from the metal container in which they were created into tall, old-fashioned malt glasses. There’s nearly another full glass left in the container, so unless you’re splitting, the half order makes sense. Plus, you want to leave room for the burgers.
Our server heads off with our order, while we peruse the menu, not that there’s much to peruse. The Convention Grill is a burger joint, but since I began making my semi-annual pilgrimages in the 1980s, they’ve tossed in a few options like Caesar salad and a triple-decker grilled cheese sandwich. Look around the room and mostly you’ll see plates piled with burgers and fries.
You can build your own burger or choose from standards such as a
Let’s see, we’ve got malts and burgers – now for the fries. The Grill’s fries are a wonder. Thin strips of skin-on potatoes, deep-fried until they’re crisp and golden and slightly salty on the outside, yet warm and nicely potato-y on the inside. These are fries with heft, not those pallid, skinny things from Burger King. Warning: you may be tempted to buy a full order, but don’t unless you have at least three friends with you. A half-order generously serves two, while the side order is more than enough for one.
When the burgers come, they’re open-faced with cheese slices melting on the pile of hot sautéed fresh mushrooms and onions and thick, hand-formed burgers. The bun is warm and toasted to a golden brown on the flat side. We both ignore the wan slices of tomato and pale leaves of iceberg lettuce, add a little mustard and ketchup, and bite in. You can’t make burgers like this at home. I think it’s the 70 years of grease.