I love me a good burger so when I recently read that the Sycamore Drive-In Restaurant in Bethel, Connecticut had been ranked as the #1 favorite place in Connecticut by more than 300 readers who had voted in CTPost.com's 2014 "Best of Summer" category for burgers I knew I had to head west and check it out for myself. Add on the fact that they make their own root beer and it too had been voted a "Best of Connecticut" in 2010, that made the close-to-100-mile drive on a hot and humid July afternoon even less of a hindrance - I-84 traffic be damned!
Having friends who live closer to Bethel than I do, we decided to get together for lunch and a bit of visiting but before we did that we had to check to make sure that the restaurant was handicapped-accessible as Ralph does his wandering in a motorized wheelchair. Though there was nothing to indicate it as such on their website, a quick check of Yelp! stated that it was so with plans set for a Wednesday afternoon lunch, I set off from Norwich with my oldest daughter and my friends set off from Ansonia with their oldest daughter, too.
Arriving at the restaurant that for some reason I thought was in a grove of trees but was actually surrounded by a lot of pavement - though there were trees nearby including the 600-year old sycamore tree that the place is named after - our first dilemma was that there was no handicapped parking to be found. Being the resourceful type, Ralph got creative and parked in a non-spot of sorts and then we faced our next dilemma - how to to get Ralph's wheelchair over the short curbing so that he could make it inside. It wasn't going to be impossible but it was going to require some maneuvering on Ralph's part and some bench-moving on our parts. Putting our heads together and backs to work we eventually got past the little chef out front with his empty tray and in the door.
If you didn't already get the idea that you were traveling somewhere back in time before you walked in the door you sure would once you got inside! Front and center is a traditional diner counter with swivel stools and above the windows you'll find Laurel & Hardy, Groucho Marx (in several different incarnations), Betty Boop, and a plethora of other memorabilia that takes you back to what we nostalgic types like to call "simpler times."
We were invited to sit anywhere we'd like and even though there were plenty of open booths we figured that a table would be our best bet as we could remove one of the chairs for Ralph so that he could easily fit his motorized wheelchair in its place. Easy-peasy once we had gotten past that whole "how do we get into the place?" thing at the beginning of our visit.
Our table was near the back corner of the room where a Ms. Pacman/Galaga machine for anyone who wanted to play "old school" video games was nestled up next to a vintage jukebox that spins real records. If you're in the mood for a little Elvis, Nat King Cole, or perhaps the song-stylings of Fats Domino then you were in the right place but be gentle with the machine please as requested by the sign posted on it!
Our waitress hustled right over as soon as we were settled and asked what we'd like to drink. Four of us opted for their award-winning homemade root beer and the other got a Diet Pepsi which would normally be my choice as I'm a diet soda drinker on the occasions when I do drink soda but I couldn't very well render an educated opinion on the root beer if I didn't try it, now could I?
In the CTPost.com article I had read that the root beer at the Sycamore Drive-In is more of a cross between root beer and cream soda and that it contained lots of sugar using a recipe that has been handed down from owner to owner over the past 40 years and that it was a "must order" by anyone dining at the restaurant. As my dearly-departed grandfather used to bottle his own root beer when I was a kid, I was quite looking forward to trying the root beer to see how it compared to his as I've never had root beer quite like Gramp's - it had great carbonation and a bit of a bite to it which varied depending on how long it had been allowed to ferment before we grandkids came over on Sunday afternoons and swilled it down like it was water!
I took a few sips of my root beer (which was not served in a frosted glass in spite of what the menu said) as I contemplated the menu and tried to decide what kind of burger to order (photo credit to Oldest Daughter on the above!) There was a long list of selections including the "Dagwood Burger" for $6.30 which is apparently one of their most popular choices. On the menu it's called "The Final Answer to the Burger" and is described as: "5 ozs ground steak meat, topped with a slice of melted American cheese, served with mustard, ketchup, pickle, onion, tomato slices, crispy lettuce, and just a touch of mayonnaise to enhance the flavor and make this a special treat. (You're just gonna love it!)" Heck, it must have been popular as it even had its own neon sign but I wasn't really sure if that was what I wanted.
While I tried to make up my mind, Oldest Daughter decided to forego a burger or hot dog even though it was National Hot Dog Day and choose one of their Specials of the Day - a clam strip basket with fries for $11.95.
Finally I decided on a Double Cheeseburger - 5 ozs of ground steak meat, slice of cheese, mustard, ketchup, pickle and onion on a toasted, buttered bun for $5.95 with a small side of fries for $2.95. Oh and could you hold the onion please? Thank you! My friends all ordered burgers also along with a small order of fries and onion rings to split among themselves and though I had briefly debated ordering a side of cole slaw at $2.75, that seemed like a bit much so I restrained myself.
I opted to order a double burger as I had seen a photo of one of the Sycamore's burgers on CTBites. com when they visited in August of 2010 and I just wasn't sure that I wanted to drive close to 100 miles for a "slice" of a burger. As it was, even the 5 oz burger was quite flat but when I looked over at Ralph's burger - he ordered a single - it looked as if the burger had been sliced in half which would have been a pretty good feat considering the thinness of it to begin with.
The burgers at the Sycamore Drive-In are made from fresh U.S. choice ground round beef that they get from the nearby Omaha Beef Company in Danbury and then cooked up "French-style" using another recipe that has been handed down over the years. I'm guessing that because the burgers are so thin they don't take very long to cook and don't get dried out in the process as it was a pretty juicy burger that I sunk my teeth into. Aside from it needing a bit of salt to season it up a little bit and that there was way too much pickle (I honestly think there was more pickle on the bun than there was burger!) it was a pretty good burger and the fries were quite tasty also though those also needed salt. In my opinion it's better to need to put salt on something rather than have it come to you with so much salt that you feel like you've been served part of a salt-lick so that was okay.
Though there were desserts listed on the menu and a board on the wall listing the specials of the day, we weren't offered the opportunity to try any of them as our waitress said that she was going off duty and needed to "cash us out" before she could leave though we were welcome to stay for as long as we'd like. At that point we were given the check (I still don't know why it isn't called a bill as that's what it really is!) without even so much as a "Would you care for anything for dessert?" but I guess it's probably just as well as I'm sure I really don't need dessert when you get right down to it. Still - they did have Butterscotch Sundaes and Rice Pudding on the menu ... sigh ...
Oh, I should probably mention here that at the Sycamore Drive-In Restaurant they do not take credit cards or checks so you need to have cold hard cash with you to pay your bill. Should you not have any on you not to worry - there's an ATM machine inside the dining room for your convenience. Also, should you not wish to actually go in to the restaurant itself to eat but want to eat your food in the car or get it go, the Sycamore offers car hop service. Simply park your car, blink your lights, and someone will be with you shortly. Talk about feeling like you've stepped into a time warp!
Once we paid our bill and tipped our waitress so that she could go home on time, we were re-faced with the dilemma that we had when we first arrived as now Ralph had to maneuver his wheelchair off of the curb. As you can see from the photo below, he ended up backing down the curb at the end of the walkway as thankfully there were no cars in that particular parking spot when we left. Had there been a car there then it would have been a bit trickier to find a spot to get his chair down safely.
Now I know that the Sycamore has been in the same place since 1948 and back in 1948 no one worried about Title III of the Americans with Disability Act as it wasn't signed into law until 1990 but as the Sycamore is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places or any other historic listing that it would preclude it from making any changes to the exterior of the building, I feel that they need to make a few minor modifications so that folks like Ralph can access the building without having to jump over or back down curbs.
Even though the antique Shell gas pump pictured above is pretty cool I bet if it were moved and a small ramp was put at the end of the walkway there that it would be quite easy for folks in a wheelchair (or who use a walker and can't step up) to access the walkway into the building and it really wouldn't take away from anything from the building. It would also be nice to have a handicapped parking space or two so that folks didn't have to park in non-parking spots in order to get their wheelchairs out. And yes, a handicapped person could certainly go to the Sycamore and flash their lights to get curb service but that's not the point. If a person wants to join their friends inside the dining room and they have special needs, accommodations should be made for them to be able to do so. I don't think that's asking that much and besides, it's the law.
On a final note, if you're wondering how I would rate my burger and root beer and was it worth driving 200 miles round-trip I'd have to say that the drive was worth it once to check things out but I wouldn't go out of my way to go to the Sycamore again. The burger was good but nothing spectacular and the root beer was a bit on the disappointing side as it was quite flat and somewhat warm though maybe that's because it wasn't served in a frosted mug or with any ice. Perhaps the memories of the root beer from my youth have set the standards way too high but maybe not, maybe somewhere it's out there and I'll have to keep searching for "root beer like Gramp used to make."
In the meantime though, if you're in the Danbury area and you like patronizing family-owned restaurants with their own personality that aren't part of a chain then by all means, stop in at the Sycamore Drive-In Restaurant, order a burger and then come back here and tell me I'm wrong - that it WAS the best burger you've ever sunk your teeth into washed down by the tastiest root beer you've had in a long time and I have no idea what I'm talking about. Just let me know about the handicap-accessibility too!
The Sycamore Drive-In Restaurant is located at 282 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As of this writing, the menu prices on their website have not been updated and are higher than listed so plan accordingly. As a bonus, on Saturday nights from 6 pm to 9 pm during the summer months, the Sycamore holds Summer Cruise Nights where you can check out some pretty sweet classic rides as their owners head to the diner to show off their wheels. Now if that doesn't take you back in time I don't know what will!