‘50s feel at Rawley’s Drive-In
Many years ago (when I hung out with a swanky crowd) I was at a cocktail party in Fairfield, and Martha Stewart was another guest.
Martha is amazing on many fronts, but what impressed me that evening was that she was eating very garlicky bites of sausage from an appetizer tray, yet every time she exhaled her breath smelled like peppermint. Go figure.
I have just finished lunch at Rawley’s Drive-In, a Fairfield County culinary landmark, and believe me, I don’t smell like peppermint. The reason Martha came to mind is that it was from the domestic goddess herself that I first heard about Rawley’s. Martha is originally from New Jersey, a state rich with dozens of great wiener places, so, of course, she knows her stuff and she is a longtime Rawley’s fan.
Rawley’s has changed owners a few times since it opened, and I admit that, as the years go by, I see some differences. I think the hotdogs served were a different brand back then. They are still yummy, but not perfect replicas of the originals. My fondest memories of Rawley’s hotdogs are that they were deep fried and then finished on a grill. Today my hotdog did not have the deep-brown crisp skin I remember. I miss that and wonder if I had asked for it more “well done” would it have solved the problem?
What is the same is the simple pleasure of the hotdog served plain or with a rainbow of mustard, onions, pickles or chili. It still comes (as it always has) on a lightly buttered bun, and while you are waiting for your order you can chat with the counterman, who seems straight from central casting in a 1950’s movie. The whole ambiance of the place is light years from McDonald’s or Burger King.
What I liked way more than I had expected was the chocolate malt. Let me climb on my soapbox about malted milks. When I was a teen, malt shops were still where we hung out. Yes, just like in the Archie comics or “Father Knows Best.”
Back in the day, every malt was made identically and perfectly. Perfectly means it had malted milk powder in it (making it different from a chocolate shake, a blizzard, a concrete or what not). It was a simple concoction: malted milk powder, chocolate ice cream, milk and chocolate syrup. That was that. It was served in a large, silver metal container straight from the three-pronged Waring Blender that whirled the ingredients around. From the silver container the malt was poured into a glass, and there was usually enough for three servings, and then you slurped up what was left in the silver container.
Here is what goes terribly wrong these days: the malts and shakes are so thick it is impossible to drink them. They also taste like they have some thickening agent in them. The density means you either wait until it melts into a tepid slush, or you eat it with a spoon. For me, this is not luxurious (as I think the reaction to a thick shake is supposed to be), but more like sticking a straw into a pint of frozen Haagen-Dazs. The chocolate malt at Rawley’s was just as it should be, and goes perfectly with the rest of the simple menu. Along with the chocolate malt I was also swoony over the onion rings. My readers know I prefer skinny rings, but these thick, deep-fried beauties are not to be discounted. They came blazing hot and fresh, not poured out of a freezer bag.
One last word of advice: They don’t take credit cards, so bring cash. There is a Dairy Queen next door, which serves Orange Julius, a drink so ancient my mother waxed as nostalgic over them as I do over malted milk.
Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, coauthored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern. Join her each week as she travels Fairfield County finding a great meal in unexpected places for $20 or less.