The Western Ohio Burger Tour 2011

I was tempted to make either passports or merit badges for the inaugural Western Ohio Burger Tour. For this trip, which we completed in less than 8 hours, I suggested eating four regional burger champs. That may have proved to be too much by the end of the day, but we persevered and made it home safe and bloated. Again, inspired by Motz’s Hamburger USA trek, I knew one could experience an enriching staycation just visiting the burger meccas that lie along Interstate 75 in Western Ohio. The fourth burger (more in a future post) was a delightful detour off the beaten path. So for this post, we’ll stick with the first three, mostly for their aesthetic similarities.

 The first three all fit a common theme. They all sat a mile or two from I-75 (an artery of the rust belt and half of America’s crossroads, along with I-70). They all started (we hit the original locations) in the county seat, at the absolute center of town, usually adjacent the courthouse. They were all emblematic of small town America, cultural institutions embedded in the fabric of these communities. They all have their men’s rooms situated on the outside of the restaurant (anyone know the reason for this?) There’s a reason they’ve all survived and stood the test of time – they provide a wholesome regional identity with their product and a tangible link to the past. It’s something that goes beyond nostalgia -- each place is a living, breathing, reminder. Between Wilson’s, Kewpee, and The Spot, who has claim to the best burger and the best place in which to enjoy that burger?

Atmosphere: I’m probably in the minority here, but I felt Findlay, Ohio had a bit too much of a Pleasantville feel to it. Giant houses lined Main St. all draped in jingo-Americana, some even had massive dollhouses of those house in the grand windows. I thought this was the rust belt, but you wouldn’t know it cruising into downtown. The location was almost too clean, too polished, to indicative of small town America. Almost as if it was forced. Surrounded by windows were orange stools surrounding an open kitchen and typical burger joint counter – all too typical. I suppose that’s my only argument of Wilson’s. Everything seemed quaint enough, but something seemed awry. I just can’t put my finger on it.


Burger: Rumor has it that Wilson’s became Wilson’s because Wilson didn’t want to purchase a Kewpee franchise. So he tweaked the recipe (using mayo instead of Miracle Whip) and opened his Sandwich Shop. It’s still hard to mess with Wilson’s variation on what we’ve found to be the standard Ohio square hamburg (look to your nearest Wendy’s). It’s nothing fancy – the burger, with “everything,” includes tomato, onion, lettuce, a slice of American cheese, off a flattop grill. Perfection, really.


Hype: I can put my finger on that something that seemed awry. They were awfully suspect of strangers and the insider’s guide to ordering a Wilson’s burger killed our initial buzz for Wilson’s. It’s uppity in a way – and didn’t have the underdog status vs. Kewpee that one would think. All of that said, the burger is more than worth your visit, if only to say you’ve tried both for comparison.


Atmosphere: What we loved about Lima is how it was the antithesis of Findlay. The city was pretty gnar/gnar and has seen much better days. Kooler’s, which looked like the most happening abandoned train station turned bar, had long closed up, but three Kewpee’s outposts (including the original downtown location) remain as thriving businesses. And though that downtown was grimy and plain, half shut-down, there was a bustling line through the drive-in at the tiny diner. It had the essential qualities of an old-school burger joint (perhaps because it defined those qualities) and nothing has changed – lots of chrome and kitsch, an impeccable logo/mascot, a compact, steaming, visible kitchen, swinging doors, huge malts, and a staff that was equally accommodating and aging. Priceless. 


Burger: Maybe it was the character of the place, but it was the best food on our trip. Maybe it was the tang of the Miracle Whip that gave the burger a distinct sweeter flavor? Kewpee was the first to use the flat bun, the first to offer the “deluxe” burger (wit’ tomato, lettuce, onions, cheese), and it shows. The “mity nice hamburger” which “caters to all folks” is the blueprint for burgers across the Midwest.


Hype: The chain originated in Flint, Michigan in 1923 and has longed been known to serve as the inspiration for Dave Thomas’ Wendy’s burger. Eventually the franchise moved headquarters to Lima – and now this location is the longest still in operation. You want more firsts? Kewpee founder Samuel V. Bair was also the first to introduce curbside service, which eventually morphed into the modern day drive-thru. So pairing the food with such history – this is the real Ohio burger experience and well worth your time. 


Atmosphere: Though once a chain to serve Shelby and Miami County, the Sidney Spot (previously known as the Spot to Eat) is the only remaining location. It’s been there, at a picturesque corner of downtown Sidney, in one form or another, since 1907. That’s a testament to the brand, the loyalty of Sidney’s citizens, and the durability of a good burger. Though the Spot might be untouched, the excessive displays of nostalgia and ‘50s kitsch and diner-red-leather booths and neon, might have taken from the taste, the experience.


Burger: Still, this was the third stop the day. We needed coffee and walk about the square to keep off the sweats. Cleansed, we tried our best to comply and be objective. The Spot burger is a variation on another classic of the Ohio burger world – namely the Big Boy double decker. There was a “special sauce” (tartar, relish, mayo) and a poppyseed bun sandwiching a somewhat bland thin patty. I certainly prefer Frisch’s. The Spot’s only saving grace on the day was the sheer variety of their diner essentials menu.


Hype: Sidney had the nicest of the three historic downtown districts. We could’ve spent the day just exploring those few blocks. But even that is not worth the trouble to pull off the highway to frequent the Spot when there’s a Kewpee a mere 15 minutes away.


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