Heavy foods and highfalutin settings can seem a bad fit with the carefree days of summer, times when winding country roads and dusty antiques emporiums beckon us from all directions. Perhaps you, too, find yourself feeling that this is the season for casual pit stops on the road to other adventures, rather than for serious destination dining. If that's the case, we've got the spots for you. Both of these family-friendly restaurants are clean, quick, and inexpensive, leaving you with the time and money to follow a trail less traveled or to search for hidden treasures behind the doors of every gift shop along the way.
Picture-perfect downtown Medina is already almost too quaint for words. With its well-maintained facades of red brick and clapboard, it's a place where Norman Rockwell could feel right at home, sitting in the town square's charming white gazebo or watching the comings and goings at the nearby firehouse. So it seems entirely fitting that this pretty town is also home to Dan's Dogs, a family-owned-and-operated 1950s-style diner with a big menu of hot dogs and all (and we do mean all) the trimmings.
Does anyone, we wonder, ever really order the Deputy Dawg, an eccentric little wienie topped with peanut butter and jelly? Or how about the Reuben Dog, with Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut, and Swiss? On the other hand, we can't imagine a more riotously delicious mess than Dan's justifiably Famous Dog, all dressed up in mustard, pickle relish, chopped fresh onion and cucumber, slabs of jalapeño pepper and sweet pickle, and a final dusting of celery salt. And if you've never tried Mr. Green's Dog, slathered with homemade chili and onions, you can't seriously consider yourself a frankie fan at all. Other inventive options -- among more than two dozen variations -- include the Moon Doggie (sautéed green pepper, onion, and mozzarella cheese), Zorba the Greek (lettuce, tomato, cucumber, olives, and feta), and the Big Kahuna (barbecue sauce, sautéed green pepper, and crushed pineapple).
Dan's all-beef wienies come in two sizes: the inconsequential 1.6-ounce "regular," which tends to get lost beneath its cargo of toppings inside the old-fashioned New England split-top bun, and the considerably sturdier "jumbo" dog, which, at 3.2 ounces, almost holds its own against the goodies. If you want to taste the meat beneath the fixin's, spend the extra 80 cents on the big dog and leave the little wienies to the family pups.
Speaking of pups, Dan's is a guaranteed favorite among the little folks. Besides the simple food and the spill-impervious tables topped with classic Boomerang-patterned Formica and set with paper napkins, salt, pepper, and Tabasco, kid-friendly amenities include a long, narrow counter crammed with coloring books, crayons, comics, and flash cards. Feeding Mom and Pop's shiny quarters into the slot of the old-fashioned jukebox, stocked with mellow oldies, generally proves endlessly fascinating. And while we haven't yet seen anyone hula-ing with the sherbet-colored hoops that hang on the coat rack by the front door, we doubt any of the laid-back staffers would object if someone actually did.
Although it would be silly to go to Dan's for anything other than the dogs, the menu does include burgers, BLTs, grilled chicken sandwiches, and salads, all priced at less than $5. Mountains of chili-and-cheese-drenched fries, served in a paper-lined plastic basket, are wonderfully messy and good enough to fight over. And generously sized fountain drinks -- including thick malts and milk shakes, and whipped-cream-topped root-beer and orange "Creamsicle" floats -- make perfect pick-me-ups for this trip down memory lane.
Afterward, take a stroll around the square, either for the exercise or to visit some of the city's uncommon shops. Our current haunt is Becky Knapp's Medina Chocolate Box (6 Public Square, 330-723-2176), where the legal secretary turned confectioner sells homemade fudge and chocolates. Our number-one pick has always been Canal Mud -- strata of dark and milk chocolates interspersed with ribbons of buttery caramel -- a treat Knapp first created for sale at her Deliciously Different chocolate store in Canal Fulton. However, the newly developed Medina Square is a real up-and-comer on our list of favorite things, with caramel, whipped mallow cream, and freshly roasted and salted Georgia pecans, all packed into a sturdy edible chocolate "box." You may as well buy some of each; after all, it could turn out to be a long ride home.
Munching at Menches
Besides their status as pure culinary Americana, what do hamburgers, ice cream cones, and caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts have in common? According to at least some food folklorists, they were all the turn-of-the-20th-century inventions of Canton-born brothers Frank and Charles Menches.
Whether the Menches family's claim to fame is historically accurate, the truth remains that Frank and Charlie's descendants make some mighty fine burgers, which they serve in a pretty little Victorian-themed restaurant in southern Summit County, just off I-77. (There's a second Menches location in downtown Akron's Canal Park, which is open only for weekday lunches, unless there's a ball game.)
In a world of beefy burgers bearing a burden of salt, pepper, garlic, and other savory seasonings, the Menches burger is decidedly different. The brothers' original recipe yields a thick, medium-well-done patty with a surprisingly sweet taste (due to the addition of brown sugar) as well as distinct overtones of coffee and perhaps even a hint of cinnamon. It's unusual, all right, but delicious -- a good-tasting oddity that makes a long ride into the country seem inconsequential.
The moist, lean burgers are served on squishy, corn-flour-dusted buns that willingly mold themselves around the meat and its array of possible toppings. Besides the usual cheeseburgers, gussied-up options include the Italian Burger with pasta sauce, banana pepper, and provolone; a Western Burger with barbecue sauce, bacon, and cheddar; and the aptly named Glory Burger, smothered with Swiss, sautéed onion, and thick slices of portobello mushroom. On the side, golden french fries are batter-dipped and crunchy. Homemade chicken noodle soup is richly flavored and crammed with thick, broad Amish-style noodles; homemade chili is mild almost to a fault, but won us over anyway with its big chunks of meltingly tender ground beef, seasoned with the same ingredients as the burgers.
Our server, a pleasant and efficient family member, said she makes fresh ice cream waffle cones -- in keeping with the founders' traditions -- at an off-site location; unfortunately, the restaurant was sold out on the day of our visit. We settled for a bowl of average chocolate ice cream and a run-of-the-mill milk shake; sundaes, floats, and commercially made pies were among the other possibilities.
Menches Bros. opened in 1994, although family members have been peddling their burgers since the 1885 Erie County Fair. The establishment started with one small dining room and has gone through two expansions since then, including the recent addition of a pub with a full bar. The menu, too, has grown; now, burgers take up only a single page of the six-page document, along with breakfast items, salads, homemade pizzas, some tempting pasta dishes, and traditional comfort foods like chicken with gravy and hot roast beef sandwiches. But really, why would you come here for anything else? Menches burgers have been attracting fans for more than 100 years, and, brothers, that's good enough for us.