BEDFORD – The Chickenburger could very well be the only restaurant in Atlantic Canada where you’ll be asked – in the dead of winter – whether you’d like to enjoy your order in the parking lot.
Even when the 1950s-style landmark isn’t packed, nostalgic patrons often are happy to dine a la dashboard.
“Are you eating inside, sir?” asks a girl working behind the counter during the lunchtime rush. “Would you like a takeout tray?”
Off hungry customers go to their warm vehicles, small red trays filled with fries and burgers balancing precariously on knees and steering wheels.
This joint isn’t chic. It’s Chick.
“It’s like in Newfoundland when they kiss the cod. When people come to Halifax, the first thing people say is, ’You gotta go to the Chickenburger,”’ says Mickey MacDonald, its owner.
Dubbed “the Chick” by regulars, the decades-old restaurant is considered a rite of passage by many.
MacDonald, a well-known Halifax businessman, bought the eatery in March 2007 from its original owners, the Innes family, amid rumours developers planned to tear it down to build a hotel or condos.
Opened in 1940 as a takeout counter called the Shadyside, the Chickenburger bills itself as the oldest drive-in eatery in Canada. Over the decades, it’s grown into a full-fledged restaurant, serving up onion rings and milkshakes on the same plot of land in the Halifax suburb of Bedford – a history chronicled in black-and-white photos that adorn one of the diner’s walls.
While there’s no lack of dining options in Halifax, those looking for a fast-food fix often flock to the Chick with its big, neon sign featuring a rooster perched atop its roof. “Hotdogs, hamburgs,” it boasts.
In the summertime, a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass doors is opened, exposing most of the large, L-shaped counter to the outdoors. The restaurant also has a year-round dining room in the shape of a semi-circle with tables, stools and bar-type seating added in the 1980s.
Yellow, green and pink neon lights draw the eyes towards a domed ceiling in the centre of the seating area, which is also decorated with vintage-looking signs imploring patrons to drink Coca-Cola.
There was even a brush of cinematic fame in the 1990s, when Canadian actor Jason Priestly shot scenes for the movie “Love and Death on Long Island” at the Chickenburger.
Inside, the smell of deep-fried french fries and onions make stomachs growl. The chatter and laughter of customers cuts through the sound of beef patties sizzling behind the counter and workers shouting out order numbers to waiting customers.
A teenage couple shares a ketchup-drenched order of fries in the dining area. A young girl pops a quarter into the CD-playing jukebox and soon Bobby Darin’s poppy Queen of the Hop fills the space.
Vince Wentzell used to pull up to the Chickenburger in a ’57 Chevy with his sweetheart, Beverley, now his wife of 47 years. He recalls a time when a meal for two would set him back a buck.
It’s a little different now. A pair of chickenburgers, two orders of fries and Cokes cost about $14. And the Wentzells now eat inside, leaving their Chrysler Neon in the parking lot. But they keep coming back for a couple of reasons.
“The food and of course the memories we have here,” says Vince, 71, perched on a green stool after eating a hotdog. “It’s almost a must at some time or another that we stop here.”
His favourite item on the menu remains the restaurant’s no-frills namesake, the chickenburger: chunks of boiled chicken served on a plain white, store-bought bun.
Ordered as is, it comes with no condiments. But the restaurant is happy to oblige bored palates with cranberry sauce, relish, mustard, ketchup or onions, if customers cluck about the lack of flavour.
MacDonald’s 29-year-old son, Colin, the restaurant’s general manager, says he is fiercely faithful to the chickenburger. He chows down on one every day.
“I can’t get enough of the chickenburgers,” he says, grinning. “It’s nothing fancy at all. You either love it or you hate it.”
From the Chickenburger’s large windows, the golden arches belonging to a certain global chain can easily be seen. But Colin MacDonald says there’s no pressure to conform to the competition.
The Chick follows the old adage of if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The eatery, including its menu, has scarcely changed except for a few additions and a fresh coat of white, glossy paint on its interior walls once a year.
The only forseeable change coming to the Chick’s legacy is a second location that could open this year or next in downtown Halifax off bustling Spring Garden Road.
“We don’t want to change for the sake of change,” says Colin MacDonald. “We don’t want to try and keep up with the other guys.”
If you go ...
How to get there: The Chickenburger is located at 1531 Bedford Highway in Bedford, about 20 minutes north of Halifax.
Cost: Food ranges from about $1.89 (hamburger or hotdog) to $7.30 (fish and chips), plus tax.
On the web: http://chickenburger.com/main.php