An Appreciation of Big Boy
Get a bite while you still can
Big Boy and I go way back. When I was a child, my parents would drive us out to see family in Western Pennsylvania twice a year. The journey was a monotonous seven turnpike hours but it had one high point: lunch at Big Boy.
We’d get off the big road, the roundabout whirling us past Perkins’ Pancake Houses and Howard Johnsons and Red Barns to the Big Boy, with its asymmetrical roof lines and plate-glass windows, an angular slice of Googie architecture in Pennsylvania Dutch country. There was always a statue of the icon himself at the door, checkered pants pulled up high like Ed Grimley, pompadour breaking in a wave over his forehead, right arm raised as though he were RuPaul launching a Drag Race.
Inside, I’d slide across the smooth turquoise pleather boots and shiny Formica table top, grab an oversized, laminate-glossy menu and begin contemplating my choices. Grilled cheese? Cheeseburger? Patty melt? Would my milkshake—served still in its ice-frosted, stainless-steel mixing cup—be chocolate or peanut butter? Or would I pass on the shake to save room for a banana split or strawberry shortcake sundae?
Big Boys once dotted the landscape from Connecticut to California, now they can only be found in three midwestern states and a few in its place of origin, California. It began in 1936, when Bob Wian sold his car and opened a burger stand, Bob’s Pantry, in Glendale, home of that other ambitious culinary entrepreneur, Mildred Pierce. When a group of musicians came in late at night and asked for “something special,” Wian created the world’s first double-decker cheeseburger. He added it to the menu, naming it the “Big Boy,” after a chunky, burger-loving youngster who hung around the stand.
Wian soon opened two more Bob’s Big Boy restaurants, adding carhop service. In the late 1940s, he made franchise deals with Eat'n Park, Frisch's, and Shoney’s to sell Big Boy burgers on the east coast—ergo the “Bob’s Big Boy” vs. “Big Boy” differential. Twenty years later, there were 22 company-owned Bob’s Big Boys and over 500 franchises across 38 states. Wian then sold the chain to the Marriott corporation, who bought other chains to bring Big Boy to toll-roadside ubiquity and then sold it off piecemeal.
Today, there are a few dozen Big Boys throughout Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, roughly based where the Frisch’s Big Boy restaurants originated, scattered through small towns and along interstates. Near an exit off of the 75 in Southern Michigan, Big Boy still stands proudly, hoisting his burger high—even when there’s a frosting of snow on top. Located across the street from a video store, the Big Boy is a splash of red and a whiff of French fries in a grey town. But it’s basically glorified fast food. The root beer float and classic Big Boy burger are reasonably respectable, but no more than that.
The patrons are tired travelers or locals on a quick lunch break, the building itself is anonymously low-slung brick, a pothole-dotted parking lot running alongside. Inside the brightly-lit restaurant, light wood tables and chairs cluster on rust-orange tile and the walls are hung with glossy photos of a frolicking Big Boy in brass-toned plastic frames. He’s riding in a pastel convertible with sunglasses-wearing hotties, or chilling beneath a palm tree and blue skies, his perpetual wide grin and uplifted hand suddenly a curiously appropriate gesture.
About 2,000 miles away is the Bob’s Big Boy of Burbank, located down the street from Disney studios and catty-corner from the Gary Marshall Theater. It’s a magnificent example of California diner moderne—all curves and neon, Big Boy standing tall alongside a glowing CAR HOP SERVICE sign. It’s the oldest still-functioning Big Boy and, like many of the California outposts, is one of the Bob’s Big Boys that was actually owned by Bob.
And, unlike the off-ramp Big Boys of the north, this one hops. Friday nights, there’s a car show full of fishtails and V8 engines (and occasionally the random Batmobile). Sunday brunch brings in families, weekday afternoons draw a bustling lunch crowd (it’s Los Angeles so, yes, you will hear the word “screenplay”). Many of the diners are tourists, but their stop here isn’t a random one, brought by a need to pee or stretch one’s legs at this particular interstate exit and someone’s had a bad experience at Wendy’s or “we went to McDonald’s last time.” No, it’s a special trip to check out a slice of photogenic Americana.
Maybe you can sit in the Beatles’ booth—a plaque commemorates the spot—or the one where Val Kilmer brooded in Heat. The milkshakes are thick and Arctic, the onion rings hot and crispy—better than the Michigan rendition, but it’s still mainly the retro vibe and the fact that Lightning McQueen once rolled down a red carpet here that draw the masses.
As time trudges on, tastes change and there are fewer and fewer Big Boys—Bob’s or otherwise—every year. Somewhere in Temecula or Eastpointe, the grill is switched off for the last time, the dining room goes dark and Big Boy stands alone. So, when you see him, grinning in his checked overalls, inviting you in for a blockbuster breakfast or brownie a la mode, take him up on the offer. It may be the last time he asks.