March 1, 2021

Amy Cavanaugh

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Open Today: Wisconsin Drive-Ins

A couple of the best are in Kenosha

Just ninety minutes up I-94 from Chicago, or forty-five minutes from Milwaukee, you can find drive-in bliss in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I’d gone north for sausages, kringles, and brandy old-fashioneds, but before the pandemic hit, I hadn’t yet taken advantage of the lakeside city’s small but mighty drive-in scene. Kenosha has three operating drive-ins, and staying in the car seemed like the right choice during a pandemic, so my boyfriend, Kenney, and I picked two: Big Star, which serves a Cheez Whiz-topped burger beloved by Chicago food writer Titus Ruscitti, and The Spot, where Kenney’s dad went for cheeseburgers when he was growing up in Wisconsin.

The two restaurants have some things in common. They’re both more than sixty-five years old, they both offer carhop service, and they’re both under standout neon signs.

Outside Big Star, a towering red arrow with a star on one end and a burger in the middle draws the hungry to the joint that Roy and Marian Boehner opened in 1954, serving customers from March 1 until Labor Day.

The restaurant, still family-owned, is a summertime destination for burgers, hot dogs, broasted chicken, and root beer, which you can order by the gallon. There’s a walk-up window with a couple of tables, but when we went last year, most people were eating in their cars. Its old-school ambiance makes it feel a bit like a family heirloom, like your great-grandmother’s heavy cast-iron pan. It’s old, yes, but it gets the job done.

Open Today: Wisconsin Drive-Ins - Quote

I’d gone north for sausages, kringles, and brandy old-fashioneds, but before the pandemic hit, I hadn’t yet taken advantage of the lakeside city’s small but mighty drive-in scene.

I ordered a double cheeseburger, just $2.69, with grilled onions and two thin patties crowned with Cheez Whiz. It was tasty—appealingly squishy in texture, more cheesy than beefy, and small enough that I’d probably be able to put two away on another visit. But knowing that we had another stop ahead of us, we split the burger and an excellent corn dog, with a sweet, crisp crust, before driving on to The Spot.

The Spot celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary last Fourth of July, which means it opened at the tail end of World War II. It was in the DuBois family until 2019, when they sold to longtime customers Robert and Peter Lee.

The new father-and-son owners have modernized it a little bit. There are some new vegetarian items, and a mobile app if you’re in a rush and want to order in advance. The burger was classic: two patties, fried onions, cheese. But an extra two dollars got us thicker patties, each with a bit of char and a blanket of gooey American.

It’s the more craveable burger, for sure, perfect with the rich vanilla shake I got alongside. Between the two drive-in institutions, though, I couldn’t choose a favorite.

I loved the cheeseburger from The Spot. I loved the atmosphere at Big Star. It has the feel of a summer institution, the kind of place many of us went to as kids, and that our parents went to before us. (My mom and I shared fried shrimp and orange-pineapple ice cream at the Hallmark Drive-In in Old Lyme, Connecticut.) Both are those places for Wisconsinites, confirmed by the response to the photos I posted on Instagram.

And now, I love them too. How and where to dine has been so fraught the past year, and it will continue to be for a while. But it’s reassuring to pull up to a drive-in that’s survived for decades, has meaning in a community, and can offer something fresh: a distanced experience, a delicious burger, and an escape, if only for the afternoon. Consider planning a weekend drive. It’s March 1, which means Big Star is open once again, and that restaurants like it are opening for the season across the Midwest.


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