Sunday Top Ten: Heartwarming Midwestern and Southern Restaurant Chains I Miss

Welcome to the fifth edition of Sunday Top Ten, a list of completely random and undoubtedly self-indulgent things that may or may not be published on a Sunday or number “ten.” This feature is a continuation of the Sunday Top Tens I used to write for my earth-shattering personal blog Autowin, where I talked about myself pretty much constantly from 2006-2008. 


Recently when we were back in the heartland visiting family, my Aunt took my girlfriend Abby’s hands in her hands and said, “We’re so glad Marie has met a nice girl from the Midwest.” Probably what she meant by that was, “We’re so glad you’ve found another human being who knows what Frisch’s sauce is.” You know?

To be real, you can really only eat at these places like twice a month before your intestines revolt and strangle you in your sleep, but like, it’s nice to have the option.

Top 11 Restaurant Chains That Exist (Or Used To Exist) In The Midwest But Not In California

Most of my restaurant chain consumption has occurred in Michigan and Ohio, so these are all places that are in one or both of those places but not in California, where I presently live. 

11. Chi-Chi’s

Founded in 1975 in Richfield, Minnesota. Headquarters were in Louisville, Kentucky when the chain closed down its US operations in 2004.

Chi-Chi's in Madison, Wisconsin, 1981

Chi-Chi’s in Madison, Wisconsin, 1981

This particular restaurant doesn’t exist anywhere in the United States or Canada anymore, because it went bankrupt in 2004. This is a tragedy because of Fried Ice Cream. Apparently you can still get Chi-Chi’s products at the grocery store, or visit a Chi-Chi’s outlet in China, Belgium, Luxembourg, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait or Indonesia. Another fun fact: The U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board denied the restaurant’s 2001 application to trademark the word “salsafication.”

10. Shoney’s

Alex Schoenbaum’s Parkette Drive-In, founded in 1947 in Charleston, West Virginia, became a Big Boy Franchise named “Shoney’s” in 1954. Current headquarters in Nashville, TN.

1970s Shoney's in Charleston, West Virginia via flickr

1970s Shoney’s in Charleston, West Virginia via flickr

My cousin waited tables at the Shoney’s out by the outlet mall off Route 71, we’d always give her really big tips UNLIKE SOME PEOPLE WHO ONLY TIPPED A DOLLAR. She’d always tell us about the bad tips.I loved visiting my cousin at Shoney’s, it was like we were in with the band. What do they serve at Shoney’s? Food. All the different kinds of food. Side salads with iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing. Reliably standard cheeseburgers. Wholesome American dining, no surprises, just the way I liked it.

9. Golden Corral

Founded in 1973 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Headquarters in Raleigh, NC.

Update: Apparently there are like three Golden Corrals in California, I’ve just never seen them.

GC_restaurant

I’ve actually never been to Golden Corral, I’ve just seen it everywhere. Luckily, Abby has been, and wrote this paragraph for you: “the golden corral. a place where french charcuterie and tex-mex meet. a place where family gather over sweet rolls with sweeter butter, diet cokes, and trays, yes trays, of food. a place where i learned to put nacho cheese on macaroni and cheese. a place where anything is possible.”

8. Steak ‘N Shake

Founded in 1934 in Normal, Illinois. Headquarters in Indianapolis, IN.

SteakShake

There’s nothing particularly special about the actual cheeseburgers or milkshakes themselves at this restaurant, its brilliance lies in the fact that its name commands you to eat both of those items together. But if you go in there thinking, “nope, no milkshake for me today,” you’re gonna change your mind as soon as you open the behemoth milkshake menu and see that every flavor you’ve ever dreamed of is in it and ten more you never knew you’d always wanted.

7. Bob Evans

Began in 1946 as a single truck stop diner near the Bob Evans Farm in Rio Grande, Ohio. Headquarters in Columbus, OH.

Bob Evans in Rio Grande, Ohio, via flickr

Bob Evans in Rio Grande, Ohio, via flickr

This one time in Traverse City, Krista and I went to Bob Evans and couldn’t decide what to have for breakfast so we literally ordered just about everything on the menu and then basically killed ourselves. I feel #blessed that on my last trip to Indiana, we ate at Bob Evans not once BUT TWO TIMES.

6. Waffle House

Opened in Avondale Estates, Georgia in 1955. Headquarters in Norcross, GA.

Waffle House in Atlanta, Georgia, 1964

Original Waffle House, 1964

What does Waffle House do best? Waffle House consistently excels at being open. It’s open at 2AM, it’s open on Christmas! I’ve also enjoyed a lot of Waffle Houses while visiting friends in Georgia over the years (I don’t know why I always make friends from Georgia but I do!). Did you know that there’s a Waffle House museum in Georgia? Well you can add that stop to your next road trip.

5. Donato’s Pizza

Opened by an Ohio State sophomore in Columbus, Ohio in 1963. Headquarters in Columbus, OH.

Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio

We’d always get this when we visited Ohio and I just loved the hell out of that thin crust with a bunch of peppers and shit on it.

4. Max & Ermas

In 1972, two businessmen brought Max & Erma’s tavern in Columbus, Ohio from a couple named Max and Erma, and turned it into a theme restaurant. Headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.

max-and-ermas-matchbookThe bathtub sundae bar is a stunning display of excellence, and its location in Ann Arbor adjacent to Briarwood Mall beneath The Olive Garden with outdoor seating overlooking a man-made pond was to die for. Here’s a thing about Max & Erma’s, though: it is fucking FREEZING in there. I swear it’s an igloo in the summer time, you should bring a hoodie.

3. Ponderosa

Founded in Kokomo, Indiana in 1965. Headquarters remain in Kokomo, Indiana.

Ponderosa Restaurant in Las Vegas, 1968 via flickr

Ponderosa Restaurant in Las Vegas, 1968 via flickr

My parents NEVER wanted to take us here, they said it was always really dirty and the food was awful. Maybe that’s true, but we were children who knew Mom always let us have chocolate milk at Ponderosa so we wanted to go go go. Plus we could get that awful pale macaroni and cheese IN SPADES. ON TRAYS!!!! Pretty sure most of these no longer exist.

2. Bill Knapp’s

via flickr

via flickr

I just need one human soul to tell me that they remember this restaurant existing so that I feel less alone in this cold dark Bill Knappsless world. This was hands down our favorite place to eat as kids in Ann Arbor, especially for birthdays ’cause you got this entire chocolate mini-cake. There was always a wait but that was okay, I was willing to wait. I practically had their kids menu memorized (each meal was ascribed its own animal, as I recall), but I went as a teenager too and I even remember my Mom taking me there in college. Then one day they just closed. All of a sudden: the end. I was working at The Macaroni Grill at the time and we got a handful of new servers from Bill Knapp’s, one of them said they’d shown up for work to find a sign on the door indicating that it was closed. Harsh.

1. Frisch’s & Elias Bros Big Boy

The original Frisch’s Cafe opened in 1905 in Cincinnati, and after numerous moves and shut-downs, it became a Big Boy in 1946. The Elias Brothers’ restaurant in Michigan became a Big Boy franchisee in 1952.

oldbigboy

Columbus, Indiana

In college my writing teacher pointed out that I’d somehow managed to include Big Boy in every story I’d turned in that year. I mean, let’s be real: art reflects life, you know? I even filmed some of my faux rockumentary in a Big Boy. One time we walked into a Big Boy and asked for a booth and you know what the thing is about Big Boy? IT WAS ALL BOOTHS. For this reason and many others, Elias Bros (in Michigan) and Frisch’s (in Ohio) was my #1 go-to spot for the following situations: after a basketball game, after a soccer game, after 9pm when everything else is closed besides Denny’s, after going to King’s Island. Etc. There’s Bob’s Big Boy out here in California but I feel like eating at one would be cheating on Mr. Frisch.

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Riese is the 39-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2883 articles for us.

104 Comments

  1. The Waffle House menu in Bloomington IN includes a unique regional menu item, grits log I believe it was called. Of course I ordered it out of pride at my southern roots and also being drunk after an awkward night out dancing at The Axis, the only gay club in town at the time. As the waitress explained to drunk homegirl and I at 4 o’clock in the morning or whatever, grits log is cooked grits congealed into a log shape; one serving is sliced off the log and this grey-white patty shape is placed on a saucer before you, plain. I don’t know why it exists; hot grits are much better. Thanks Riese for bringing back this random memory from my early queer years.

  2. I’ve never actually been to a Steak ‘n Shake when the sun was up. Too many nights while attending college in Michigan were spent drunk and smoking at 2am, crammed into a Steak ‘n Shake booth while devouring cheese fries and milkshakes. Glorious.

    • I actually hadn’t been to any Steak ‘n Shakes until visiting Abby’s family in Indiana last year, but I’d heard about it. When I was searching for photos of Steak ‘n Shake they were all night-time photos and I was like oh okay this is when people go to this place. We’d go to Denny’s, or to The Fleetwood which was a diner in downtown Ann Arbor that I think still exists.

  3. California has no Waffle Houses? *boggles*
    Where the fuck do Californian’s get late night, post-too-much-drinking grits that are shit for grits but better than no grits at all when you are far away from a grits making home?

    Its like pizza and (consensual) sex: even kinda crappy is better than none when its what you want.

  4. Omg, my gf and I LIVED at the Ponderosa in Rutland, VT when we first started dating. Later, when we visited her family in the south, she introduced me to the wonder that is Waffle House, something that New Englanders are deprived of. You’ve brought back so many greasy but happy memories!!!

  5. I can’t say I am familiar with Golden Corral, but I do keep seeing commercials for them out here in SoCal. Like most chain restaurants out here, I just assumed these stores were located in Riverside, or Ventura, and not on the West and Downtown Los Angeles area.

    I can’t speak for the other Bob’s Big Boy, but the first was started out here in SoCal is and is a classic. It’s known for the parking lots on a Friday night.

    • Yup, I just checked, there is a Golden Corral out here, it’s in Roland Heights a suburb of Los Angeles that boarders Orange County(is to the south) and San Bernardino(to it’s east). I also check and there is one in Tracy, California in Northern California, east of San Leandro.

  6. I cannot believe that Kokomo, Indiana is making an appearance on any list on the internet, much less one on Autostraddle! Speaking as a child of both the Midwest and South, I would say all that’s missing off this list is Bob Evan’s, provider of pretty ok biscuits and gravy.

  7. Omg I miss Donatos sooooooooo much!!!! They aren’t in Florida either so everytime I go home to Ohio I make my family get Donatos.

    Also this list is like the history of my life, practically all my immediate family worked/works at Bob Evans, it’s an institution and my brother has drug me to steak and shake and big boy more times than I count.
    When I move back to Ohio at the end of the year I am totally going to hAlf these places, at least.

  8. Pondegrossa. noo. why.. why would you bring back these memories i worked so hard to repress?

    Also, my last week in Indiana I had IHOP twice and Waffle House three times. Greasy generic breakfast foods are my weakness..

  9. “Waffle House consistently excels at being open.” So true. I’ve eaten at Waffle Houses across multiple states, and they will never win any awards for taste or variety, but you can always find one near your hotel or open late when you’re drunk and need carbs.

    I live in NC and have only eaten at Golden Corral once, and it was disgusting. I can’t even remember what I hated so much about the food, but I have kept my promise to myself to never go back. Maybe it was just my local one that was gross?

  10. I had my first/ last Bob Evans after a week in the woods living on such concoctions as nutloaf. (We all make terrible , terrible mistakes in our life. The week preceding was a mistake. That breakfast bowl and pie were not mistakes.)

  11. A. steak and shake is perfect because nothing costs more than 4.99. Literally. I mean it. I once bought dinner for 15 girls and it was $85. They also have delicious milkshakes.

    B. Abby’s description of Golden Corral is so accurate. The sweet rolls are pretty kickass though…

  12. I see your Waffle House and raise you a Huddle House! Another Georgia-baby, this is definitely a cousin greasy-spoon, but it’s subtly nicer. A little bit cleaner. Smells a little better. Food slightly tastier. And the red restaurants look a lot less dreary than the faded yellow of Waffle House. Their BBQ sandwiches are the taste of summer vacation to me because my family always stopped at the same one every time we drove to the beach in SC.

    Can I also nominate Cracker Barrel for its hokey faux nostalgic weirdness? Those triangle peg games they gave kids while the food was coming were…well, they weren’t as great as the Shoney’s crayons and activity menus, but they were distinctive. I once heard someone complaining that a friend was pretentious enough to have created a wedding registry at Crate and Barrel, which I got confused with Cracker Barrel. Like, wow, how many dried hams, sacks of grits and weasel-balls does a young couple really need?

  13. I moved to San Francisco from Alabama, and I miss so Waffle House all the time.

    I tried to explain it to someone and they were like, “Oh, is it like Mel’s Diner?”
    I responded, “Um… kind of, but a lot dirtier and cheaper.”

    In Birmingham you used to be able to smoke in Waffle Houses, and when I was in 9th and 10th grade the cool thing to do was to go hang out at Waffle House and bum cigarettes off the older kids I went to school with who’d just hang out there drinking coffee and smoking all night.

    I seriosly cannot imagine that disgusting image being fun anymore… high school was really weird.

  14. Oh, Waffle House…literally your only use is that you are 24 hours, so you can provide basic sustenance when a Denny’s isn’t open. I’ve gotten food poisoning from Awful House more times than I have the sketchy delivery Mexican restaurant in the town I went college in (which is really saying something.)

    Steak & Shake also has the benefit of being 24 hours and providing salty, greasy food for drunk people.

    And Riese, I can share with you ALL the feels about Bill Knapp’s. Even hearing the name still reminds me of dinner with grandparents/great-grandparents. It’s the place that was always unobjectionable to absolutely everyone. I still remember the day is closed. My best friend’s roommate was working at the Ann Arbor location, and came home saying she found out she no longer had a job by a sign on the door. Also, you can still get “Bill Knapp’s” cakes at some grocery stores in Michigan.

    • I JUST WANNA EAT SOME CANNED PEARS IN A SMALL CUP/PLATE HYBRID YOU KNOW? It’s honestly so weird to me that it closed ’cause it was packed every time we went. We obvs just called it “knapps” for short, it was like the reliable go-to, “unobjectionable” is totally the exact right word.

      • Two thoughts:
        1) Bill Knapps to me brings up memories of ham croquettes and potatoes au gratin.
        2) Wow there are a lot of folks with personal experience of the subject region on this thread!

  15. This is like a list of every restaurant that my family has stopped at on a road trip when we’re all grumpy and tired of being in the car together and disappointed that there’s no Cracker Barrel nearby.

    Also you can totally buy Chi-Chi’s salsa at the grocery store! I might try it next time because I definitely want to “salsify” my life.

  16. Never posted before but my childhood in metro Detroit and college in Ann arbor compelled me!! I drew a picture of my dad wearing a GM pin when I was 7 that was included in the ellias brothers big boy children’s magazine because Detroit My first girlfriend and I would go on dates to the Ann harbor bill knapes for fried chicken n chocolate cake. Also remember the chi-Chris bday song “happy happy birthday to you to you to you. Ole” Finally anyone remember Olgas?

  17. Waffle House is the precise reason I gained my sophomore, junior and senior 15 in college. Tallahassee has like 3 of em and they are ALWAYS OPEN and SO cheap. Being the rebel without a cause that I am, I’ve eaten maybe 2 actual waffles in all of my visits there? It’s all about the burgers for me. It’s a blessing and a curse that there isn’t one anywhere in Miami-Dade County.

  18. FEMA uses Waffle House restaurants to guage how bad a disaster area is, because Waffle House is literally the most reliable place. If there’s running water and the gas is on, they will be cooking. It’s kind of amazing.

  19. This made me a lot more nostalgic than I expected! Brings back memories of when I was living in Indiana. I didn’t even eat out very much, but I still saw most of these places around, and Donatos was a regular hangout for me and a group of friends.

  20. Bill Knapps: This was the go-to restaurant for birthdays for my grandparents and older relatives due to their policy of age-related discounts. We went to Bill Knapps restaurants in Lansing and Jackson, MI. The latter is now a Chinese restaurant on the north side of Jackson. I believe the last time I was at a Bill Knapps was while I was in college in the mid-to-late 70s.

  21. Frisch’s-The first time I went home with Riese’s dad he took me to Frisch’s. He was so excited, he took the menu from me and insisted on ordering for me, a Big Boy with extra Frisch’s sauce. It wasclear to me that this was an important rite of passage for our relationship. Riese and her brother are here today because I raved on and on about the culinary brillance of adding spiced-up tartar sauce to a burger. In my later days as a McDonald’s manager trainee I discovered that Frisch’s burger was the impetus for the Big Mac. (Uncle Tim met us there for lunch on his lunch break.)
    Bill Knapp’s – The Chocolate Cake is available for purchase at lots of local grocery stores.
    Ponderosa-one down the road from me. Always looking for a reason to get Riese back to the homeland.

  22. I used to go to the Ann Arbor Bill Knapp’s for my birthday every year! I still remember their impressive collection of frisbees that always made waiting for a table even more worth it. When they closed I was so upset that every year at my birthday I forced anyone I was with to search every grocery store until we ended up with a Bill Knapp’s chocolate cake.

  23. Grew up in Iowa, Minnesotan since 2008 for the most part. Dairy Queen is a way of life. If you didn’t have a DQ ice cream cake at your childhood birthday parties, you were most certainly not cool!

  24. shoney’s was supposedly the best place to get spaghetti. i don’t know if that was true or just my grandmother’s opinion. the last thing i ate from shoney’s was a bowl of pretty good minestrone on the way home from somewhere, probably a high school basketball game. i always wanted a shoney’s bear but no one ever thought it was important enough to buy for me, even though we had an old plastic big boy piggy bank, which was very clearly not as cute or cuddly as the shoney’s bear.

    we would always go to bonanza (basically the same thing as ponderosa) after dentist appointments and get baked potatoes because they had a bar with CHEESE SAUCE AND BACON BITS hello. i could eat it because it was soft and therefore lessened my chances of accidentally biting the inside of my numbed mouth. don’t worry though because we waited the recommended half hour before feeding me and i only dribbled soda down my shirt that one time.

    i wish i could eat at max and erma’s! it just sounds so generous and honest.

  25. These are just mediocre restaurants where I grew up in South Western PA. I mean Max & Ermas is da bomb, and waffle house is the best midnight snack place in America. But it is shocking to me that people find these places at all spectacular.

    Grass is always greener, folks.

  26. Long time lurker, first time commenter. I’ve wondered what would inspire me to comment – never thought it would be Waffle House.

    This speaks to me.

    I didn’t know Bill Knapp’s closed. Wow – part of my childhood. One time my mom realized, after we’d eaten, that she’d left her purse at home. So she left my brother and I there as collateral and drove home to go get her money. The people at Bill Knapp’s were very nice about it. I don’t remember how old we were – middle school age probably. This was in the 80s – I doubt anyone would go for that now.

    Oh, Max & Ermas. I didn’t know about the one in A2, but I’m intimately familiar with the one by my grandmother’s home in southern Ohio. We basically rotate between Max & Ermas and Bob Evans when we visit.

    Shout out to Eat N Park. And Cracker Barrel.

    And I can’t believe no one’s mentioned Friendly’s. Walking to Friendly’s for milkshakes was an important part of my college experience. And part of figuring out my sexuality, now that I think about it. I had a friend who worked at Friendly’s – she was openly bi and she flirted with me, and it confused me. Until, you know, I figured it out.

  27. Steak and shake will always be a disappointment with a name like that not being a delicious cheesesteak establishment. It just feels like a lie to a me. But that could just be my east coast roots talking. Also max and ermas, do they make delicious chocolate chip cookies? I don’t remember eating there but I remember always requesting chocolate chip cookies from some chain restaurant in Ann Arbor for all my college birthdays and them just magically appearing.

    • When I was 20, it was new years Eve and my friends realized I never stolen anything, so they dared be to steal the serving spatula from the Max and Erma’s cookies. I still have it. Still the only thing I’ve stolen.

  28. My mom always used to call Waffle House the “Awful Waffle”

    This list really speaks to me because I grew up in Ohio and moved to Wisconsin. Sadly a lot of the Ohio chains haven’t even made it as far as Wisconsin. I think there’s something wrong with Wisconsin.

    But I feel like only people who live in Ohio understand how great Ohio us, even though I can’t articulate what’s great about it to other people. Or maybe that’s just me. But I see lists like this, and I realize that Ohio has just made a bunch of awesome stuff while no one was watching.

  29. Oh I remember Bill Knapps. I worked there as my second job before going to college. It was a mix of people “out on the town” from the retirement home, and the families that drove in from the country for the free cake. At least once a day someone would ask the question “do I have to buy anything to get my free cake?”. But,the people I worked with made it worth it. I quit to leave for school and heard they closed down by doing the same thing. Just a note on the door. Sketchy move fur sure.

  30. god what even *does* California have, then

    Truly, though, I had no idea some of these were so regionally limited! And it’s hilarious that these restaurants seem to have occupied the same place in Midwestern life of the 1990s no matter where in the state you were (I grew up in West MI). Ponderosa was evidently hated by parents everywhere; I remember my mom voicing those same criticisms when I said I’d gone there for dinner with a friend’s family. Chi Chi’s definitely existed for the sake of fried ice cream, Steak ‘N Shake may as well have only opened at 9 p.m., and Max and Erma’s was indeed FREEZING during the summer. We rarely went to Bill Knapp’s, though; it had a reputation as being strictly for the senior set.

  31. RIESE! Thank you so much for reminding me of the kids meals at Bill Knapps. Thank you for existing and being midwestern and 30-something and queer making ME feel less alone in the world.

  32. Dear Riese: Thank you for the trip down memory lane, and no, you are NOT alone when it comes to Bill Knapp’s. I am from northern Indiana, and Mom’s family is scattered all over Michigan, Upper and Lower. I would literally do CARTWHEELS from excitement over going to Bill K’s for my birthday, knowing that succulent chocolate cake would be waiting for me. Call me an old soul, but loved that place as a kid!! Sadly, you can see many of the old Bill K’s locations that have closed….the restaurants have / had a very distinct look about them. I believe there is one at the Michigan Ave. exit (US-12 Saline), off US 23 right before Ann Arbor. You can easily tell it was once a Bill K’s. Best Wishes to You!!

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