Cast in the eerie shadows of the twin towers of the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant lies the Philadelphia Premium Outlet Mall, a mecca for consumers that in just a few days will cast its siren song southward to lure Black Friday shoppers and welcome their efforts to spur the economy through ritualistic spending at Nike, Adidas, Jockey, Le Creuset and the thankfully curable Perfumania (not to mention food offerings such as the painfully punny Chinese stand called Asian Chao).
What was even just a few months ago a barren field now teems with activity, forever in the present with today’s hottest fashions and modern trends. At the exit ramp off of Route 422 drivers are offered barely the chance to turn away from the mall, almost by centripetal force their cars are willed to turn left and ease into the acres of available free parking. But for those who can fight the potent inertia of drastically reduced prices on factory seconds and previous year’s stock (or perhaps more realistically forestall their entry into the maelstrom for a few moments) there is a reward for steering your car to the right at the end of the ramp – The Hilltop Drive-In.
In stark contrast to the not so accurately named outlet mall (anyone from these parts will know they are nowhere near Philadelphia, Google Maps pegs it at just over 29 miles from City Hall to the Wilson’s Leather Outlet), the Hilltop sits as a pink-hued reminder of a bygone era and the simple pleasures of a pre-fast food chain dominated burger landscape.
Make no mistake, this is not the best burger you will ever eat, but the overall experience makes it well worth the effort and miles. Add equal parts classic architecture, hand-spun milkshakes and malts, black and white photographs and retro signage and you’ve got yourself the ideal destination for a lazy Sunday drive to the far reaches of the suburban Philly telephone area code.
On this my second trip to the joint I ordered the California Cheeseburger, so-named for the appearance of (gasp!) vegetables which, at a time in our country, must have been viewed as exotic and otherworldly, just like the Golden State. Two perfectly acceptable fast food size and style beef patties were joined on the white, squishy burger bun by a piece of American cheese, sliced raw onions, tomato, shredded lettuce and mayo. (I substituted the kaiser roll which this sandwich is usually served on for a regular burger bun due to my long held belief that a kaiser roll has no business being near a burger.)
I had forgotten the pure pleasure of eating a burger with heaps of mayo on it. Despite the results of A Hamburger Today’s “Favorite Condiment” poll back in August, far too few of the burgers we eat have mayonnaise on them. Why not? Adding more fat to a burger seems like a no-brainer, and at the Hilltop, which uses some brand that bridges the chasm between Hellman’s egginess and the sweetness of its arch enemy Miracle Whip, the gooey-ness continuum that is created with the inevitable mingling of the white American cheese and mayo is pure perfection. That moment of self-questioning “was that the cheese or the mayo?” works well in the burger as grease delivery vehicle equation.
The Hilltop’s roots reach back to the 1950′s when it was a Carvel outpost and the shakes and malts served today are legit. I had a chocolate malt on my first trip and it was perfect, deeply chocolaty with flecks of slightly bitter malt powder. Soft-serve cones and sundaes are available as well and I can imagine in the summer time they do a fare bit of business cooling off the locals with these treats.
One of the great surprises of The Hilltop is that they serve Good’s Potato Chips from nearby Adamstown, PA. An old-school producer of no-frills, fried in lard chips, Good’s have become a strictly rationed treat in our house (Philly area folks can get them closer to home at The Head Nut in Ardmore) and as served here are the perfect accompaniment to your burger. They also offer pretty good french fries, McDonald’s style thin cuts fried up crisp and tasty, but when presented with the chip option they slip into second place.
Special mention must be given of their crab bisque soup. With our proximity to Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay, decent crab doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to come across, but it certainly wasn’t expected in this kind of setting and truly stole the show on our first visit.
Huge thanks to ModBetty of Retro Roadmap for bringing The Hilltop to my attention via her great post and pictures (special notice should be given of the early ’50′s black and white image she shares of the Hilltop as a Carvel -complete with a rogues gallery of patrons straight out of central casting). Her site is packed with other great info and she is the rare Keystone state resident with actual duckpin bowling experience.
You’ve seen books from the Images of America series thousands of times at your local bookstore, airport, historic landmark gift shop, etc. (there are over 5,000 titles in the series already). They are paperback books chock-full of black and white pictures of historic towns, neighborhoods and fraternal organizations. The Burger Chef book is the first one dedicated to a fast food outlet and for sheer historical and pop culture value, the chain is a great choice for this treatment.
First time author Scott R. Sanders uses images he has gathered from Burger Chef co-founder Frank P. Thomas Jr. (who sadly passed on before the book was published*), several collectors and perhaps the largest collection of Burger Chef memorabilia, Schroeder’s Drive-In in Danville, Illinois, to move along the pretty compelling story of the chain. Running almost parallel to McDonalds (in philosophy, McD’s set up shop in the big towns and Burger Chef ruled small town America), the chain was a trailblazer in fast food technology and marketing and at one point laid claim to the title of fastest growing fast food chain in the country (and second-largest chain overall behind McDonalds).
As much as I wanted Stacy Perman’s In-N-Out Burger book from earlier this year to be some sort of cosmic event – offering up the secrets to success and worldwide burger adulation with a side order of history, Sanders builds a story here that I think is much more compelling. In less space and really only with pictures, he illustrates Burger Chef’s impact on the industry and in reshaping small town America (now whether that is a good thing is debatable, but with chains that have disappeared we can cut them some slack). The incredibly personal and candid photos used throughout stamp a real time and place aspect on the story, which ratchets up the nostalgia factor while easing you through the history.
Broken up into 6 sections, the book takes you from the birth of the franchise (like McDonalds, Burger Chef was born out of the technology that was used in the restaurant – in this case the Sani-Shake and Sani-Broiler designed by chain founders under the General Equipment Company flag), through its growth and ultimate demise, with stops along the way to gawk at store merchandising, promotional items and advertisements.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is about an ill-fated side venture from Burger Chef, the Pied Piper mobile food van. As shown below, the entire operation was run out of an early 60′s Volkswagen Van.
One innovation from Burger Chef that did stick was the “Fun Meal” which was introduced in 1973 and served as the template for similar offerings at other chains and continues on today as “Happy Meals” or “Kids Meals.”
I had the chance to speak with Scott about some topics not covered in the book.
The last Burger Chef closed in 1996, is there chain today making burgers similar to BC?
The hamburgers at Carl’s Jr. are flame-broiled and taste the closest to what I used to eat at Burger Chef. Burger King used to taste similar, but the flavor of their hamburgers has changed.
Asked if writing a book about burgers caused him to eat more of them…
I don’t think I ate hamburgers more frequently while writing the book, but I was often reminded of how much I missed eating hamburgers at Burger Chef.
Scott is an elementary school teacher in Alvin, Texas and I asked him how his pupils have reacted to the book…
Actually, I did a presentation about Burger Chef and my book for my school last spring, and the reaction of the students was amazing. They were fascinated by the story of the chain and they all wanted to go out and eat at one of the restaurants.
If you are in Texas, Scott has a few recommendations for burger joints to check out including:Bellaire Broiler Burger 5216 Bellaire Blvd
Bellaire, TX 77401-3902 The Spot 3204 Seawall Blvd
Galveston, TX 77550-7656 Whataburger
I (Scott) generally consider Whataburger to be the best hamburger chain in the area. Mooyah I (Scott) have started eating at a new chain called Mooyah that just opened here. To order, you fill out a card indicating your choice of hamburger and the toppings you would like.
Burger Chef is available at area bookstores, independent retailers, and on-line retailers, or through Arcadia Publishing at (888)-313-2665 or www.arcadiapublishing.com.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book at my request. I receive no compensation for your purchase and I am not related to Scott R. Sanders, but it is good to know there are other folks named Sanders who appreciate a good story and a burger.