The intersection connecting fast food and the car culture created in the 1950s with neon-lit drive-ins stays menu-driven with the next-generation eatery where hot dogs are still the top choice and appetites are limited only by the available notches on a customer's belt.
Today's spin on the hot dog takes a gourmet twist that goes beyond a weenie in a bun garnished with mustard. The modern day "red hot" comes laden with layers of flavorful fixin's and over 16 billion are enjoyed by Americans annually.
Robert Lutz of Dowagiac, Michigan, has been serving hot dogs to hungry patrons since he opened Lutz's Drive-in north of town in 1962 at the corners of M-152 and M-51. "We've been serving hot dogs and hamburgers here for a long time. Ours is one of the few drive-ins across the country that is still run by the original owners," he says.
In 1982, Lutz expanded his drive-in for year-round operation with an attached indoor restaurant that seats over thirty customers. The interior décor reflects the flavor of the 1960s with an eclectic mix of wall adornments and western-style tablecloths that add a bright touch to the dining room.
In summer, carhops hustle hot dogs and other summertime food favorites to awaiting cars under the red and white awning. "Our carhops still serve sandwich baskets on old-fashioned window trays that hang on the car window. Problem is, today's car windows aren't square like the crank windows of the early cars were," Lutz reflects. "The curved door glass on today's cars doesn't hold the tray as securely. And every now and then somebody accidentally touches their power window button, sending the window down along with the tray and their meal to the ground."
Lutz's traditional hot dogs can be accompanied by a variety of sides that range from classic fries to breaded cauliflower. Hot dogs start at $1.75. Add fries and a root beer for a tasty bite that costs less than $5.00. But don't reach for your credit card to pay for your meal. Much like Lutz's salads the only green accepted for payment is cash. Lutz's Drive-in is open all year—closed Monday and Tuesday.
New-wave gourmet dogs
Michigan City is home to the SodaDog drive-in located at Highway 212 and Fryer Road, where old-world authentic franks and sausages are the sole menu items. Here, the common frank is transformed into a culinary masterpiece with multiple varieties that bring a taste twist to patrons hungry for something beyond the run-of-the-mill hot dog. How about biting into a Windy City, Detroiter or Wagon Train dog? Hungry for more? Try a Southern Living, Tail Wagger or Cottage Frank. Classic beef and pork wiener varieties include the All American, Chili Cheese and Corn Dog. A Spicy Corn Dog is also available.
Hot dog lovers smacking their lips for something with a European flair can enjoy an Italian sausage taste experience with the Italian Stallion or Mediterranean Miracle. SodaDog also wags a German theme past patrons' palates with a natural-cased German brat in a bun SodaDog calls "It's Noon Somewhere."
The Windy City hot dog is SodaDog's specialty menu item made from a natural-cased all-beef frank formulated by a small company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a blend of seasonings created by owner Chris Bardol for a unique Chicago-style taste all its own. Prices range from $2.25 for a standard SodaPup to gourmet dogs that cost $3.00 to $3.50. Fresh-cut skin-on fries, cottage cheese, chili, dill spear, coleslaw and sauerkraut are the only sides offered. Cones, floats and shakes cover SodaDog's frozen treat needs.
SodaDog also boasts an assortment of micro-crafted bottled sodas along with Jones and Faygo Soda varieties to quench the thirst of hot dog aficionados. Old-fashioned fountain creations and raspberry sweet tea rounds out the beverage selection.
"SodaDog is a drive-in with carhop service," says SodaDog co-owner Kristy Bardol. "People know that when they pull up they're going to be greeted by a carhop." A small indoor dining area is likewise available. Outdoor picnic tables are made of 100 percent recycled material. "SodaDog is a new-old carhop dining experience with a contemporary twist."
Sodadog is open May through September, and credit cards are accepted.