Swenson’s Drive-In — An ode to my favorite cheeseburger

12 Apr

If you’ve been paying attention to food trends over the past few years, you’ve probably heard the term “better burger” thrown around. Starting (at least it seems) with Five Guys, there has been a race to see who can improve on that mainstay of fast food in America: the cheeseburger.  But, if you’ve ever eaten at Swenson’s a group of seven drive-in restaurants in northeast Ohio, you’d be forgiven if you’re left scratching your head wondering what there is to improve, and why anyone would think that they could make a so-called “better burger.”

Long before Shake Shack debuted on the New York Stock Exchange or people began smashing their burgers, I had been on a quest to find the best fast-food cheeseburger. For the longest time, that meant visiting the usual chains—plus any regional ones I came across. (For example, In-N-Out Burger in California, Whataburger in Texas, and Hardee’s in the south/truck stops). So when I heard transplants from NE Ohio tell tales of Swenson’s a small chain of drive-in restaurants that had the best cheeseburgers bar none, I had to visit.

2013-04-28 15.13.59

I may have only discovered Swenson’s within the past 10 years, but they’ve been turning out, as my Swenson’s pint glass puts it, “legendary food since 1934.” That’s when they opened the first small hamburger stand that would grow into a regional empire. (Is empire too strong of a word? Not if you love their cheeseburgers as much as I do. Plus, it’s such a great turn of phrase.)  It is beloved by pretty much everyone I’ve talked to from NE Ohio–at least those who have eaten there anyway.  And rumor is, that long before the Black Keys became superstars, they had a Swenson’s-inspired design for one of the tour T-shirts.  (That would have been such a cool shirt to have!)

My pint glass listing the many awards Swenson's has won over the years.  It was impossible to capture them all. But look closely and you can see that they were named "America's Best Cheeseburger."

My pint glass listing the many awards Swenson’s has won over the years. It was impossible to capture them all. But look closely and you can see that they were named “America’s Best Cheeseburger.”

The first time I visited Swenson’s I have to admit: I was a bit confused. It’s a drive-in, as I mentioned. And drive-ins just aren’t that common these days. So, when I pulled into the parking lot of the location on the Stow/Kent border for the first time, I didn’t really know what to do. The sign said “lights on for service” so that’s what I did, and in short order, someone came sprinting over to my car to take my order. There was no visible menu from where I was parked, and on that first visit I didn’t realize I only had to ask and one would be promptly presented to me.

A Galley Boy, complete with olive garnish.

A Galley Boy, complete with olive garnish.

Honestly, I didn’t need one that first time however; I knew what I was going to get. Swenson’s signature burger is the Galley Boy. It’s a double cheeseburger with two “special sauces.” The best description of each sauce is BBQ and a form of tartar sauce. It’s served garnished with an olive on a toothpick. My rule of thumb is to always order a signature dish the first time I visit a restaurant. So add one Galley Boy. Next, I love onion rings—check. And chocolate malts. Swenson’s is know for their shakes, so add one chocolate malt and done!

No surprise, everything was amazing.

A close-up of the Galley Boy sauces.

A close-up of the Galley Boy sauces.

To be honest though, as good as the Galley Boy is, it’s not my favorite thing at Swenson’s. No, that title instead goes to the much more basic cheeseburger. See, I love everything about the Swenson’s cheeseburger. I love the bun that is toasty and a little crumbly, the cheese that seems extra melty, and “everything” on it: mustard, pickles, and onions that aren’t raw, aren’t caramelized, but are just a little bit charred. So my preferred order is as many single cheeseburgers as I think I can eat in that sitting. I want as much of the foregoing as possible. (Don’t get me wrong, I still order the Galley Boy from time to time. And most frequently when there has been a long gap between my visits. It is really good.)

They might LOOK like raw onions in this photo.  But I swear they're not.

They might LOOK like raw onions in this photo. But I swear they’re not.

The other menu items are equally praise worthy. The acclaim that their shakes receive is well deserved. And the selection of sides similarly shines. Fries of course, and the aforementioned onion rings, which were terrific. They also have “potato puffs” and the awesome “potato teezers,” which they describe as a “tasty potato, cheese, and jalapeno combo.” I can’t really describe them that well but, rest assured, they are delicious.

A blurry photograph of a regular cheeseburger.  It's tasty in focus or out.

A blurry photograph of a regular cheeseburger. It’s tasty in focus or out.

The only problem with Swenson’s? It’s that they’re located exclusively in NE Ohio. So if you don’t make it up that way that often, you need to seize the opportunity when you do. That’s why, on multiple occasions, I have dragged co-workers there on trips for work, and sat in a full suit and tie eating cheeseburger after cheeseburger. (And for the record, I’ve turned many of those same co-workers into Swenson’s fanatics.)

But! Do not despair! There is hope for those of us central Ohio residents however! Swenson’s has a food truck. That means that it is at least possible that you might not have to go to the Galley Boy, the Galley Boy could come to you. So if you’re intrigued, or if you are already a Swenson’s convert, we need your help. Encourage them to make the trip down I-71 to bring cheeseburgers to the loyal (or just curious) Columbus fan base. And maybe—just maybe—if they see how well-loved their burgers are down here, they’ll decide that an eighth location is in order, this time within 270. (Columbus as a city did a great job trying to lure Stone Brewing with the #stone2cbus campaign. I think that we’d be just as well-served should we succeed in bringing #swensons2cbus.)


6 Responses to “Swenson’s Drive-In — An ode to my favorite cheeseburger”

  1. Susan Whitaker April 15, 2015 at 10:30 am #

    We need them to open one here in Savannah Georgia, it would be such a success, there are a lot of Ohio transplants. There are NO good burger places and restaurants rule here.

    • Nicole Pollock April 16, 2015 at 8:46 am #

      I’m an Akron to Savannah transplant and I couldn’t agree more!

  2. ruthann munn April 15, 2015 at 4:20 pm #

    we need one in Oklahoma Duncan to be exact or just send your food truck on tour
    a cross country tour but add Duncan to your list

  3. mike luck April 15, 2015 at 11:56 pm #

    Swenson’s needs to stay in Akron. What makes it unique; is the two hour drive to get one of their burgers(with extra butter). I live in Columbus but was raised in Akron but still love to make the trip to savor Swenson’s.

  4. Maddie April 16, 2015 at 6:15 pm #

    Swensons has the best food. I always get my potato teasers or fries with ‘cajun’ on them. It’s the best way!

  5. cmh gourmand April 19, 2016 at 7:36 pm #

    Two Galley Boys every time I visit Kent with my wife. https://cmhgourmand.com/2014/01/01/swensons-drive-in-worth-the-road-trip/

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