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The choo-choo, The Little Restaurant That Could

The choo-choo is probably Des Plaines' most famous restaurant - well, besides that one with the golden arches.

Is the choo-choo a Des Plaines original? It might surprise you, but no. The first one was opened in Skokie in 1949; Des Plaines followed in 1951, after Wilmette. Its original location was a few doors down, in the corner store of the Masonic Temple building, which we covered just a few entries back.

As the story goes, the choo-choo idea came about when Roy Ballowe (pronounced Bell-ewe,) a model train lover, was serving as a soldier in the Philippines in 1941. The soldiers were forced to subsist on small rations. Sitting hungry in a foxhole one day when he pondered the phase "gravy train". On a flight of fancy, Ballowe, who loved model trains as a child, thought to himself, "Why not serve hamburgers on a model train? Kids love both of 'em." At the same time, he considered that trains were also known for speed, so it would be a great way to serve their "fast food". It didn't hurt that serving food on a train was a memorable experience. And of course there was the long tradition of railroad dining cars, train cars converted into diners, and diners at train stations. Really, trains and diners have had a long link. And the concept could have longevity- even if one child got bored with the idea, the next year there would be another in his place, especially during the baby boom, and when he was older he would share it with his own children.

The first "Choo-Choo Limited Restaurant," a "restaurant designed with children in mind," opened at 4923 Oakton Street in Skokie on July 1, 1949, and was operated by Ballowe and his business partner William Indelli. The choo-choo had 19 seats, and two O-scale trains: a Pennsylvania steam engine and a Santa Fe streamline diesel, each pulling about 6 cars of food. Two waitresses with brakeman's caps reading "choo-choo" worked there, calling orders to the kitchen and listening for the cook's cry of "'Board!" and a steam whistle, indicating that food is ready. The waitresses used a system of numbered seats and a control box to know where to stop the train. It was later featured on the Camel Caravan TV program and closed in 1956. A second choo-choo opened in April 1951 at 1114 Central in Wilmette. Des Plaines was next, in May 1951, followed by 3352 W Foster in Chicago. Two more eventually opened, at 6324 Van Nuys Boulevard in Van Nuys, California, and in Fort Lauterdale, Florida.

Roy's brother James was a true character. He was a lawyer, always wanted to learn piano, and wrote a book. His family came to the Chicago area in 1922, when he was 16. He first got an education degree at DePaul in 1928, taught for a year or two at Senn High School, then went back to Chicago's Central YMCA College (Roosevelt) for an Art/Dramatics degree, where he was also elected president of the Little Theater association. He went to Hollywood to act, but returned to Chicago after finding only a few small movie parts. Next, he received a law degree from John Marshall College in 1934, followed by a doctoral there. From there, he went into the mail order business, doing quality control for Alden's, Inc. He married in 1947, in 1949 ran for Justice of the Peace in Niles Township and was elected President of the Roosevelt College alumni association, and opened the Des Plaines choo-choo in 1951. He was working at a corporation in Skokie when his brother asked him to prepare his income taxes; when he saw the receipts, he decided to have some fun and join the business. He did not completely abandon law, however; while running the choo-choo in 1964, he was interviewed by members of the US Supreme Court and was given permission to represent persons taking cases to the court. He made an unsuccessful run for Des Plaines first ward alderman in 1975. He also served as a substitute teacher. In 1981, he wrote a book, "Trailer Park," set in Des Plaines and based on a ditch digger that Ballowe met in front of the Des Plaines Theater. Ballowe died March 22, 1997 at the age of 90. 

In 1974, the Ballowes sold the business to James and Sue Doris, who ran the restaurant with the Mandas family as a partner, until 2000, when George retired shortly after his wife's death.

Des Plaines is probably better known for the first McDonald's built by Ray Kroc (the ninth McDonald's overall) down the street. But few realize that the histories of the two are closely linked.

Dr. Bud Phillips in Des Plaines once shared the story that Ray Kroc once approached Stan Orsi, an executive at Kraft Corporation, about purchasing the choo-choo, but Orsi declined; this was before he had gone into the McDonald's business. This seems like a plausible story: Kroc was selling Multimixers at the time, which is how he wound up at McDonald's in California in the first place, and to this day the choo-choo uses a Multimixer for its milkshakes. And Bob Dondanville of Arlington Heights, who move to California to open the Van Nuys choo-choo, became an early McDonald's franchisee two years later.

Ballowe later recalled that while Kroc was preparing to open McDonald's, he stopped in at the choo-choo in the Masonic Temple building to check out the other hamburger place in town. Kroc thought the choo-choo was a novel operation. Kroc assured him that he didn't think his hamburger restaurant would be competition, since he didn't have seats or a train. After Kroc left, Ballowe remarked to his employees that McDonald's was a fly-by-night operation with no chance of survival, and would never move as many burgers as the choo-choo. Many of Kroc's employees defected to the choo-choo because it could pay in cash instead of stock (and several of the employees who stayed with McDonald's became very wealthy as a result). Ballowe never saw Kroc again. While cars took the place of trains, and McDonald's took the place of diners, the choo-choo has endured as home to the kid in us.

In 1956, the restaurant was popular enough that a new, larger, freestanding building was built, the choo-choo we all know today. The building is more architecturally interesting than it may seem at first glance. Essentially, it is a compromise between the Modern architecture style of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the vernacular commercial modern style. The building's architect was Robert Stauber, who had studied under Mies at the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 1940s. Mies' influence can be seen in the extensive use of plate glass divided by thin mullions, and the parapet wall of the roof, which is covered in sheet metal. The influence of vernacular modernism can be seen in the wood texturing of the sheet metal, the tan, rusticated Roman brick used on the building, and its use of signage. It is identical to its 1950s appearance, except that the dash in choo-choo disappeared somewhere along the way, as did "free parking" signs. As far as anyone can remember, the paint colors are original. The building is also architecturally significant because Stauber was also the architect employed by Ray Kroc to adapt the McDonald's building plans to Des Plaines - extensive alterations were made, which were critical to Kroc's success. Both McDonald's and the choo-choo use a "fishbowl front", with plate glass across the front of the building atop a low wall, wrapping around the sides. At McDonald's, the fishbowl enclosed the kitchen, making it visible and inviting; at the choo-choo, it displayed the warm, inviting interior. McDonald's used a flashy, eye-grabbing style to catch attention and build brand image, while the choo-choo chose a sober style to let the experience speak for itself. Unlike McDonald's, which was extensively rebuilt in 1985, the choo-choo retains authenticity and integrity.

The interior of the choo-choo is virtually identical to its 1956 appearance, with Formica surfaces, stainless steel equipment, terazzo floors, wood paneling, and naugahyde stools (though they were once light green); even the bathrooms and air conditioner are original. About the only things missing are vertical blinds and a foot rail. The biggest changes to the restaurant were the addition of booths along the outside wall in 1973, where a waiting bench had been, cutting through the front counter and removing a stool to make an access to serve the booths, and the replacement of a "Champion" mechanical horse (just like Gene Autry's, who appeared live at the Des Plaines Theater, and who was an icon to 1950s children,) in 2001 with a mechanical train ride. Other changes are small, like the removal of a worn-out footrail, removal of tattered curtains, replacement of the ceiling, replacement of the trains, and restoration of the neon sign. With L&L Snack shop on Northwest Highway, possibly also designed by Stauber, the choo-choo is one of only two vintage restaurants in the city, and the only authentic historic franchise in a city that became known for franchises. 

The current operator, Jean Paxton, has done a great job with the restaurant. It certainly seems like the place is busier than ever, the food is now good, and it's consistently sparkling clean. Equally importantly, she has shown a lot of respect for keeping it authentic, the same place we all remember going as kids.

The choo-choo is not the only restaurant to serve food on a train. The best known in the area is Snackville Junction, which opened two years after the choo-choo in 1951, which has moved several times since, at 10809 South Western, 11016 South Western, and 9144 South Kedzie Avenue.

More recently, a host of restaurants have popped up looking to franchise the idea. In Frankfort, there is Choo Choo Johnny's, which opened in 2002 and is now seeking to sell franchises. In 2006, 2Toots Train Whistle Grill opened in Downers Grove, IL and in 2008 in Glen Ellyn. One also opened at 2336 S Reynolds Road in Toledo, Ohio, but has since closed. In 2007, All Aboard Diner opened, at 1510B West 75th Street in Downers Grove.

And there were others around the country. In 1956-1965, there was Hamburger Junction (1) in Carney, Maryland. There was the Hamburger Choo Choo and Hamburger Local in Huntington Bay Shore, and Hewlett, Long Island, and Garden City, NY. Hamburger Express, Parkchester, The Bronx. The Hamburger Coach, Glen Oaks, Queens on 256th St & Union Turnpike. One in Sanford, NC. The Iron Horse in Seattle. The Pizza King chain in Indiana. A variation on the theme at Fritz's Railroad Restaurant in Kansas City. And probably more I haven't heard of. There is even a patent out for an overcomplicated version. Internationally, there is Výtopna in Brno, Czech Republic.

I have tried to dig deep with my research, and from what I've been able to tell, the choo-choo was the pioneering concept in this string of well-remembered restaurants. As Chicago is the hub of the nation's railroads, Des Plaines is the hub of the nation's model railroad restaurants. The choo-choo is far older than any of the others that exist today. It is among Des Plaines' oldest restaurants, and likely the most intact of them. And trains probably mean a lot more to Des Plaines than any of these other communities. The choo-choo is a unique slice of Americana that has the kind of local character most cities would kill for, and it is an experience that should be kept around for future generations.

Visit Revitalize Des Plaines! for more pictures.

Phil Heller December 13, 2010 at 01:31 PM
At one time in the mid 50's, you could watch the steam locomotives operate on the Chicago and Northwestern. These locomotives would belch steam and smoke several feet high as they ran through Des Plaines. There was even an old water tower on the east side of the train depot. My dad would take us to see them pour water into these big black powerful steam engines. As a child living on Webford Avenue near downtown, we were surrounded by trains ( C & NW, Soo Line, and the Milwaukee Road). Everytime I hear a train now in the distance, blowing its horn, I think of Des Plaines. :-o)
Phil Heller December 14, 2010 at 12:30 PM
Brian, have you done an article on the toy and hobby stores in Des Plaines? There was a neat one on Miner St. near the theatre that had tons of expensive trains and model car kits, the Correspondence Store on Center St., Walt Boyle on Lee and Algonquin. Since we didn't watch much TV, we would hang out in these places and gawk because we had no money to buy any stuff. :-o)
Mary Grimes December 16, 2010 at 07:08 PM
This has been a pleasure to read. Thank you so much.
Dave Carlsen March 28, 2012 at 08:25 PM
Great article - thanks! I grew up in Des Plaines from age 2 in 1952. I ate at the Choo-choo many times and took my own children there when they were little. Even rode on the mechanical horse for a dime. I have train memories of running to see a Diesel train because they were new, as most trains were locomotives. Rode my bike to McD too. Connection completion = my Lionel train set theme is Des Plaines 1949 - 1959 with McD, bank, RR station, fire station, O'Hare, etc. Now I guess I better get a Choo-choo building! Dave Carlsen
George Dansky November 16, 2012 at 01:32 AM
I remember the Hamburger Coach in Glen Oaks Queens. My dad used to take my every so often. Very nostalgic, thanks!

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