Friday, November 18, 2011

[EID Feature] Big Boy, My Big Boy

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.
Question I am most often asked, #1: "What's your favorite restaurant?" (Note to the audience: I really hate that question.)

Question I am most often asked, #2: "How did you get 'into' food?"*

My history with food isn't really all that romantic. Shall we begin like David Copperfield?

I've been eating food for as long as I can remember. CRAZY, I know. There was really no impetus for it; just sort of a situation of basic human needs being met kind of a deal.

Okay, I'll stop being a sh*twit. Those of you who have been a Nicole Rupersburg Superfan for awhile have already seen my bio, but for the rest of you I'll repeat this snippet: "I grew up in a household where Shake 'N Bake and Hamburger Helper was de rigueur. Dining 'out' meant a cheeseburger at Big Boy. (And I still to this day love Big Boy.)"

I wrote that a couple of years ago, and I got a lot of positive feedback about it. People really seemed to personally relate to the part about Big Boy.

The thing is, most of you probably have a Big Boy story. The family hamburger chain (headquartered in Warren, Michigan) is ubiquitous in Southeastern Michigan, and no matter what kind of family you grew up in -- no matter how rich or how poor, how city or how suburban -- odds are your parents wrangled all you unruly children into a Big Boy at some point, where you ate their famous Big Boy Burger (the original double-decker ... yup, McDonald's swiped it from them) and drank their hand-dipped shakes served in a fountain glass with the stainless steel mixing cup with MORE shake in it on the side. You remember the brown octagon-shaped tiles, the orange-brown vinyl booths, the one section under the skylight (in every location), and coloring with dull crayons on the paper placemat and all over the iconic large lad.

As part of a corporate-wide re-branding initiative, Big Boy is now referring to itself in marketing and inside the restaurants as your Big Boy. When I walked into the location at Hall Rd. and Garfield in Clinton Township and was greeted with, "Welcome to your Big Boy!," the girl had no way of knowing that this really was MY Big Boy.

Most of my youngest childhood years were spent in Fraser. We went out to eat as a family probably once or twice a month, and it was always to Big Boy, and always at the Fraser location on Groesbeck and Kelly Rd. (long-since closed). My father and I also had a monthly Sunday breakfast ritual. We had to go all the way over to the other Big Boy in Fraser because our Big Boy didn't have the breakfast bar (which was a huge source of excitement and anticipation for me, and most surely marked the beginning of my sacred brunching). Then I got older and things changed. I started high school. I started dating a guy from a different high school. His friends all hung out at Big Boy, and therefore so did we.

When an elderly person succumbs fully to dementia, there is a specific point in their lives in which they seem to live in perpetuity. For me, it will be these days. It was the whole of my high school existence (and most of college); we sat in Big Boy, chain-smoked cigarettes, drank bottomless cups of coffee and talked. About life, the universe and everything (also Douglas Adams). About music and movies and books--Metallica, Jeff Noon, Beavis and Butthead, Sister Machine Gun, the State, everything, nothing, it didn't matter. Hours and hours and hours and hours we spent there. Sometimes our group was only three, sometimes we filled an entire section (looking back I pity those poor waitresses). This parking lot was our pre-concert meeting place; inside we held our post-concert powwows. We made lifelong friends, we fell in and out of love, we had our hearts broken, we learned we were smarter than our parents and also how to be jaded. We experienced all the magnified extremes of raw emotion only possible when you're a teenager. We were adolescents playing at adulthood. All here, at this Big Boy.

I don't often accept invitations from PR reps for media tastings and events. But when I got an email from John Fuller inviting me out to taste some of the new dishes at this Big Boy, MY Big Boy, I couldn't resist.

I walked in to find the place almost unrecognizable. After a $400,000 remodel in mid-July (this location being the first in the company to go through the full re-branding), the space is brighter, cheerier, and more stylish with also a bit of an old-fashioned soda shop throwback appeal. (I remember the last time they remodeled, probably in the late '90s. They shut down for three months. We didn't know what to do. This was how Ram's Horn, Denny's and National Coney Island got thrown into our rotation: it was Big Boy diaspora.) They've introduced a variety of new menu items with a focus on freshness, utilizing more local products, and the same large portions, hearty flavors and low prices that have made Big Boy a family favorite for 75 years.

John and I sit down and order up several rounds of food to sample. There's the BBQ Ranch Chicken Tenders (a sandwich made with chicken tenders on a grilled sesame roll with melted cheddar cheese, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, ranch dressing and BBQ sauce), the Buffalo Chicken Salad (a new menu item with choice of grilled chicken or chicken tenders with tomatoes, red onion, bleu cheese crumbles and croutons, then topped with their signature Buffalo sauce and bleu cheese dressing), Chicken Parmesan (an old favorite with breaded chicken breast, melted mozzarella and marinara sauce), a Coney Dog (from the all-new footlong hot dog menu, loaded with chili, diced white onions and yellow mustard), and the Best Burger on the Planet (another new item from the new Burger Lovers' Burgers menu, and while the name itself may be a bit ambitious it is indeed a DAMN tasty burger). And to wash it all down, a Peanut Butter and Jelly Shake, made with real peanut butter and quite literally just like the real thing blended with ice cream.

John and I sit down to sample all the different items, and they're every bit as reliably big and hearty as you have always been able to expect from your Big Boy. Big Boy epitomizes the American diner: as trends move this way or that (micro, gastro, organic, etc.) there is still a huge faction of America concerned less with celebrity chefs and haute food trends and more with being able to get a good meal at a good price. I will repeat this, ad infinitum: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Big Boy may not be gastro this-or-that, but it's damn tasty diner food. It may be full of blue hairs and screaming kids, but that's the atmosphere of the classic American diner (that and teenagers who will take up several tables for hours sitting, drinking coffee and philosophizing).

When I launched Eat It Detroit, the most important thing to me was to be as all-inclusive as possible. This means putting up fine dining against cheap diners, profiling unknown business owners in NW Detroit alongside the latest white dude opening a cocktail bar, running back-to-back Hot Lists on hot dogs and halal restaurants. To me, Big Boy fully represents that all-inclusive ethos. It's a chain (sneer); it's a non-trendy family restaurant serving pedestrian American diner food (sneer); it appeals to the lowest common denominator (sneer). But the classic Big Boy double-decker sandwich is still one of my favorite burgers, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Plus, hi, their pies and desserts? AWESOME.

Sitting with John and talking about life, work, travel and Detroit for a couple of hours reminded me of why I loved Big Boy so much in the first place. More often than not, sharing a meal is less often about the food and more about the people that you're with and the memories you associate with the experience, and that is something the Food Network can never package and sell.

*Actually, that's a lie. The second most-often asked question I get is "How do you eat so much and stay so skinny?" I'm on the almost-double-digit side of size 8; I ain't that skinny. Anyway, for the purposes of this, we'll stick with the other #2.

Want to see more? Check out the Flickr set here.

Big Boy on Urbanspoon