dicks-drive-in

Most life-changing burger in America? The winner is...

March 12, 2012 at 12:20 PM ET

Kurt Schlosser / TODAY.com

How can a fast-food joint inspire a city’s widespread and lasting allegiance? What explains the bovine je ne sais quoi that caused hundreds of Dick’s devotees this fall to mob the opening of the first new franchise of the Seattle mainstay in 37 years, some waiting up to two hours for a cheeseburger?

And how, just last week, did Esquire magazine readers come to name Dick's "the most life-changing burger joint"? Dick's beat out cult favorite In-N-Out and even burger behemoth Five Guys to take 56% of the mag's national vote.

Many Seattleites can rattle off their Dick’s Drive-In order faster than they can recall their own social security number. My burger mantra? Deluxe, fries, tartar, chocolate shake. Deluxe, fries, tartar, chocolate shake. Deluxe, fries ...

That’s the order I delivered when I took my 3-year-old for her first Dick’s burger this weekend, and it’s likely the same one I gave more than two decades ago when I tottered out of a white limo on prom night, a shrub-sized corsage rubber-banded to my wrist.

While I delight in my hometown drive-in, I needed to talk to someone truly passionate about Dick’s to deconstruct its draw. I needed to talk to my friend Mark Leland, participant in the unofficial, annual (and sometimes semi-annual) “Dick-O-Rama.”

For the past few years, Leland and a group of colleagues from the suburban school district where he works as a grounds keeper have made the odyssey to all five of the Dick’s restaurants in a single night. This year they’ll add the sixth Dick’s, which, like all the others, is a throwback to the 1950s. Only one Dick’s has sit-down dining. The others are true drive-ins, walled in giant windows on three sides, old fashioned milkshake machines up front and servers in paper hats. All are cash only. Because the first Dick’s opened in 1954, its Mid-century charm feels honest. Don Draper never ate at Dick’s, but it’s easy to imagine it.

When he was a kid, Leland was introduced to Dick’s by his dad. Now he’s taken his preschool-age daughter for her first burger and fries.

“It’s almost like a rite of passage,” he said. “You look forward to doing it. You know it’s going to be here forever and your kids will be taking their kids.”

Leland’s brother-in-law lives by the Dick’s that I visited on prom night. He loves the cheeseburgers so much that he’ll buy 10 when he goes, eating three or four and freezing the rest to be reheated later.

In truth, the burgers aren’t exactly gastronomically stunning. They do use fresh, never-been-frozen beef and pillowy soft buns. The fries are a little floppy and the sweet sauce (mayo plus chopped pickles) is an unnatural highlighter hue.

There are exactly four burger choices: Dick’s Deluxe (two beef patties, American cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce, sauce), Dick’s Special (one patty, iceberg, sauce), cheeseburgers and hamburgers. That’s it. There are no “wraps,” no bunless options, no veggie burgers.

“It blows you away when you find somebody (from the greater Seattle area) who hasn’t gone to Dick’s. That’s like un-American,” Leland said with a laugh. He gives newcomers a two-year window to make the pilgrimage.

“If you can’t make it to Dick’s in 700 days,” he said, “you might need to move.”

Which burger has changed your life? Let us know in the comments!

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Lisa Stiffler is a Seattle-based writer.

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