The Rapidian

Choo Choo Grill still wows with its burgers after 68 years

Located on the corner of Plainfield and Leonard, the Choo Choo Grill allows visitors to indulge in classic cheeseburgers in a tight-knit environment.
The Choo Choo Grill is in front of the railroad tracks neighboring it.

The Choo Choo Grill is in front of the railroad tracks neighboring it. /Whitney Pavlica

The Choo Choo Grill

Hours: Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Phone: 616-774-8652

One customer's cheeseburger sits on the counter.

One customer's cheeseburger sits on the counter. /Ketturah McAbee McDonald

/Whitney Pavlica

As a regular of Stella’s half-off burger nights, I enjoy a good burger. For me, a burger is a comfortable stand-by. If I go to any restaurant and feel indecisive about the menu options, I order a burger. That being said, all burgers are not created equal. Any restaurant can make a burger. But a great burger, rich in flavor, is hard to find.

The Choo Choo Grill is located on the corner of Plainfield and Leonard, right by the railroad tracks. The building was built in 1924 as the yard office for Shipman Coal Company and became The Choo Choo Grill in 1946. It is open Monday through Friday 7 a.m. - 4 p.m. It’s a small brick building that has been painted red with black accents that really makes it stick out to the eye. The door announces that The Choo Choo grill claims to have, “the best burgers on earth or anywhere else.”

As I was walking toward the restaurant, the sweet smell of fried food grabbed me and lured me in. It reminded me of other hole-in-the-wall burger places that I have been to and enjoyed immensely. Inside the building I was thrown back into the time of the 1930’s diner. Most of the seating is bar stools at the lunch counter, with only two booths—all of these a vintage red. The walls are decorated in railroad nostalgia, with paintings and prints of trains, old newspaper clippings and an antique street sign for Division and Leonard. As I hoisted myself onto a bar stool, I thought to myself, “This is a place for regulars.” The tight seating encourages conversation between diners and I found myself listening to a customer reminisce about visiting as a child when burgers were five for $1. In addition to the friendly atmosphere, I was able to see my food prepared on the seasoned grill and it added an entertainment factor to my visit.

The Choo Choo Grill serves breakfast from 7 to 11 a.m. and features staple breakfast dishes, such as omelets, French toast and breakfast sandwiches. The price range runs from $3.99 for oatmeal and toast to $6.49 for the Fireman, which is three eggs, American fries, two slices of bacon, one fat sausage and a half slab of ham and toast. The lunch menu features sandwiches such as a meatloaf sandwich, grilled cheese and a tuna melt. There are two salads—a jumbo taco salad or a large chef’s salad. The real focus of the lunch menu is their burgers and their homemade malts.

The restaurant features one pound, half-pound and third-pound burgers. The two burgers most prominent on the menu are The Legend and The Red Caboose. The Legend is a one pound deluxe cheeseburger and the Red Caboose is a half-pound cheeseburger. I ordered the Red Caboose with steak fries and a coke. Within 10 minutes, it was in front of me on an aluminum plate. The bun was toasted and I could hear the crisp as I took my first bite. The burger was the perfect temperature for eating, without it being too hot or too tepid for my taste and the American cheese was melted into the burger. I chewed that first bite slowly and let it linger. The meat tasted fresh and simple, only seasoned by the grill—but it was an explosion of taste. The burger wasn’t overcooked, which I think is a downfall of the common cheeseburger, because overcooking causes a majority of the flavor to be lost. The burger was simple, with a hearty classic flavor. It is comfort food and a worthy contender against Stella’s burgers.

I ordered a chocolate peanut butter malt to go. All of Choo Choo Grill’s malts are made with real ice cream and mixed with a vintage, seafoam colored mixer right in front of diners. A vanilla wafer cookie is also served with them. The malt was the perfect consistency, not too thick for the straw but not thin and soupy. The taste of peanut butter is the primary flavor, but isn’t overwhelming. A hint of chocolate lingers in the background and provides a just-right counter to the peanut butter.

The overall service at The Choo Choo Grill was excellent. As soon as I entered the restaurant, I felt welcome and at home, like I was at a small town rather than a city. I arrived just as the lunch rush was ending and got my food around 10 minutes after I ordered. The servers were attendant, but not over-attendant. When things slowed down, I was able to talk to them and they were friendly and personable.

For a half-pound cheeseburger, fries, a pop and a malt I paid just shy of $15. The portion of fries was a generous heap on the plate, and the malt filled a large Styrofoam cup. Based on what I paid, a diner can get a burger, fries, and a drink for around $10. It’s more expensive than fast food, but the portions make up for the price.

Based on my experience, I will be returning to The Choo Choo Grill. The parking lot is small and the seating is limited, but the quality of the food and service more than make up for it.

I recommend this restaurant to someone seeking a burger experience that compels them to stop, relax and taste. This is also a place for anyone wanting to experience the magic of a classic diner that has been around for 68 years.

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