Ohio has long been regarded as one of the fertile crescents when it comes to the hamburg. Dotted all across the state are stories of diners, drive-ins, and dives in small towns that started as modest mom-and-pop kitchens and have stood the test of time and development to outlive their era and thrive in the new millenium—Wilson’s in Findlay, Crabill’s in Urbana, K’s in Troy, Kewpee in Lima, and perhaps the most legendary of them all, Swenson’s in Akron. Since 1934, when Wesley T. “Pop” Swenson went from selling hamburgs out of a station wagon to opening the first drive-up restaurant on South Hawkins Street, their signature sandwich, the Galley Boy (rumored as a precursor to the Big Boy), has endured and lived up to the title of “America’s Best Cheeseburger.”
In my endless quest for the best burger, I’ve always held Swenson’s Galley Boy in high regard. With a fresh-ground patty, a toasted bun, two special sauces (one a tangy tartar-like mayo mix, and the other, a ketchup-barbeque hybrid that sits at the bottom) and topped with a green olive, it’s truly the gold standard. But that’s just the food. Ask any native of Akron or Canton and they’ll tell you that a night out at Swenson’s is a regional rite of passage, a nostalgic tradition that has been passed through generations, and definitely not something they thought they’d ever see in Columbus.
“There are a lot of Arkon transplants in Columbus, so it was a no-brainer,” says Swenson’s director of marketing Crystal Griffith on the move to central Ohio. “I think though that it actually started by accident when our CEO just hinted at the idea of putting a store in Columbus, and instantly Twitter exploded at that prospect.”
Indeed, the Swenson’s experience is something to behold. Though the drive-up or drive-in concept is something that’s been bastardized (I’m looking at you Sonic) and preserved in the amber of roadside travel (any summer root beer stand), Swenson’s greatest pride comes in its curb-served system of service. So when I heard that Swenson’s was planning an expansion into the Columbus area, I was thrilled that I would no longer have to trek to Akron or Canton for a fix. My only concern was that in expanding, Swenson’s might not have the logistics in place to replicate that one-of-a-kind experience.
My partner and I chose the most dreary of November nights — the requisite wintry mix — to put the “new” Swenson’s to the old test. You pull up, making sure not to turn off your lights, and wait for the magic to happen. Instantly a server sprints to your car, delivers a menu, and returns to the hive. The buzz of activity is quite unique. As such, the curb servers train in a specific language and code, gestures and movements. Our servers that evening were overly chatty, telling jokes and suggesting we choose the Ohio or California (citrus-spiked slushies in orange, grape and cherry) over my pick of a strawberry phosphate. Even in torrential weather, they were on stage, and proper stewards of Swenson’s complicated system.
“It’s one thing to have a drive-thru where you’re talking to an electronic box, and it’s a very impersonal experience,” says Griffith. “With us it’s a face-to-face experience. You’re choosing what music to listen to, you’re choosing if you want to come in your pajamas, or if you want to be there with your children or your dog. We just provide white tablecloth service at an affordable price.”
Beyond the Galley Boy (quick tip: the veggie burger substitute Salad Boy is righteous on it’s own), Swenson’s menu revels in specialties that have persevered for decades. There are the standard issue onion rings and fries, both great choices for sides, but have you tried the Potato Teezers? Resembling fried mashed potatoes, the Teezers pop with the bite of jalapeno and cheddar cheese and will likely become a favorite of anyone who tries them. The aforementioned soft drinks are another oddity on Swenson’s expansive menu. In addition to the Ohio, California, and Florida fountain specialties, they boast flavored phosphates and 18 different milkshakes, encouraging customers to create combos like hot fudge and peanut butter, or pineapple and orange. If that’s not enough dessert, the Xango, a cheesecake rolled in a flaky pastry, is another must-order and the ultimate destroyer of diets everywhere.
To that end, there’s not much at Swenson’s that isn’t without guilt or sin. I’ve yet to try their coneys, but they too look unparalleled in the world of fast-food. If you’re looking for a glutton’s feast, there’s no better stop. And if Dublin is too far, not to worry, they’ve already broken ground on a Polaris location. And in the Twittersphere, there are rumors of even more Swenson’s goodness to soon enjoy in the central Ohio area.
The holy grail of hamburger excess has finally arrived.
Swenson’s is located at 7490 Sawmill Dr. in Dublin. Visit swensonsdriveins.com for a full menu and hours of operation.