A lot of things draw me to a destination: great outdoor recreation, unique historical spots, anything fermented. And though I love a good meal, I rarely travel somewhere just for a restaurant.
Until I met Frank.
Not a dude (sorry, Mom), but a diner. Franks Diner, to be specific. And the diner was never actually owned by a guy named Frank, but rather the Franks family.
In this quiet in-between season in Wisconsin — too cold for summer sports, not enough snow for winter adventures — comfort food becomes my travel muse.
Few spots in Wisconsin beat Franks for the ultimate comfort food — delicious breakfast fare piled high and served with a side of sass in a cozy 1926 railcar diner. Living history, cheeky hospitality with a wink, food that forces buttons off your pants — everything I love about Wisconsin in one place.
The diner got its start in 1926 when Anthony Franks read about railcars being turned into diners in a magazine article and bought one from the Jerry O'Mahoney company in New Jersey for $7,500. For $315 more the company shipped the diner — on another railcar — to Kenosha, and six horses pulled it to its current location at 508 58th St. Franks added a small dining room in 1935 and expanded the kitchen in the '40s.
The family owned the diner until 2001, when they sold it to Kris Derwae, Lynn Groleau and Chris Schwartz. In December 2010, husband-and-wife team Kevin Ervin and Julie Rittmiller bought the business and faced the task of carrying on a Kenosha institution. On everyone's mind: Would they change anything?
"The first six months we got that question all the time. I almost had a T-shirt printed saying 'I'm not changing a thing.' That was a big, big worry," Ervin said.
From the outside, the nondescript building looks like any other small-town restaurant, with a brick facade and simple sign promising "Tasty Food" and "Good Coffee." Inside, the cozy space maintains its vintage feel. A curved wood ceiling hangs over 18 blue-cushion stools along the counter. White-and-blue-tile lines the floor and original woodwork frames the wall between the original car and the small, expanded dining room.
Framed articles, plaques and signs like "Shut up + eat!" and "Don't spit on the floor!" fill the space. The diner's motto warns patrons to "Be Nice or Leave." Customers belly-up to the counter where cooks and servers — wearing shirts that say "Order what you want, eat what you get!" — work their magic.
The joint is far from a secret. In 2007, the Food Network's Guy Fieri visited and featured the restaurant on his show "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives." Famous faces like Liberace, the Three Stooges and, more recently, Mark Ruffalo have dined there. Even at 8 a.m. on a recent weekday, most of the diner's 55 seats were filled.
"On the weekend we have a line out the door," Ervin said.
Even with the fame, the food and service never falters, with both Ervin, 53, and Rittmiller, 51, dancing behind the narrow counter, taking orders, delivering food and trading jabs with staff and customers.
It's the kind of place where regulars pick up coffee pots and walk around filling cups when staff is overwhelmed, and nearly every other person walking in the door greets the owners by name.
"That's part of the charm of this place," Ervin said.
"The service is fantastic, the food is phenomenal, and if you go home hungry, it's your fault," said Thom Palmer, a regular.
What to eat: Much of Franks' food is homemade — 95%, according to Ervin — on an open grill behind the counter and served in heaping portions that warm even the chilliest Wisconsin day.
The Garbage Plate is Franks' signature dish, and "by far the most popular," Ervin said. The plate comes with five eggs, hash browns, green peppers, onions, up to five meats and up to five cheeses. There's also a veggie version with zucchini, mushrooms and tomatoes. Fresh, homemade toast — white, whole wheat, marble rye or cinnamon — tops off the mammoth meal. Half portions are available if you're not an NFL lineman.
If you are, try putting down all of that, plus a tall stack of pancakes, in 45 minutes. Those who complete Franks' Carthage College Red Man Challenge win a diner T-shirt, their name on a plaque and lifelong bragging rights. Fewer than 10 exuberant eaters hold such rights; one has bested the meal twice.
For the less voracious, the French toast doesn't disappoint. Thick, fluffy homemade bread is drizzled with cinnamon sugar with options to add fruit, chocolate chips and whipped cream.
But Franks isn't a one-trick pony. "A lot of people come in for breakfast, but they don't realize we have killer specials," Ervin said.
Lunch options include sandwiches, burgers and soups, with daily specials like chicken pot pie, meatloaf and jambalaya. Seasonal breakfast specials include pumpkin pancakes, lobster and spinach omelets, and meatloaf.
When to go: The diner is open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Saturday from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Things to know: Bring cash — no checks or credit cards are accepted — and be prepared for some sass beyond the signs on the walls.
"We're a fun, fun place to go, but it can be a little PG-13," Rittmiller said with a smile.
"More like R," Ervin chimed in before launching into a joke not fit for print as his wife shushed him.
Saturdays at 11 a.m. are tequila roulette time. Staff take shots with randomly selected customers, but if you're lucky (or not?) you may get apple juice.
While you're there: Kenosha's Civil War Museum is along the lakefront just a few blocks east of Franks and includes exhibits that focus on the people of the upper Midwest during the war. Call (262) 653-4141 or see kenosha.org/wp-civilwar.
For a ride in a vintage car that actually moves, hop on one of Kenosha's electric streetcars. The 2-mile trip costs just $1 ($.50 for ages 5-12 and free for kids 4 and under) and includes views of Lake Michigan, HarborPark and downtown. See kenoshacvb.com or call (262) 653-4287 for times.
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