It’s the 1950s in the United States. Look out the window and embrace the endless rows of identical houses during this booming period for suburbia. Turn on the radio to catch the next episode of your favorite soap opera. Dean Martin, Elvis Presley and Pat Boone top the music charts.
Imagine S. Church Street is Route 66. Hamburgers and fries are the trendy food of the time and Blue Ribbon Diner is the model diner. Teenagers squeeze six to a booth on Friday night, dates hold hands while sharing a milkshake and friendly staff in uniforms greet every person that walks in.
Blue Ribbon Diner owner Wayne Bunting has spent the past 26 years recapturing his youth through the restaurant, one of three he owns in the area. He also owns the Village Grill and a second Blue Ribbon Diner in Mebane.
“When I was much younger — the drive-in, 50s theme was not a theme — it was the 50s,” Bunting said. “I love the cars, I love the music of the 50s, and we said, ‘Why not, let’s do a hamburger restaurant that kind of recaptures some of that drive-in feeling.’”
To help capture the feeling, the interior of the restaurant is styled after a classic diner. Customers can choose to sit at the countertop or in the red vinyl booths. Photos of classic cars line the walls and the floor is classic black-and-white checkered tile. The setting alone makes the dining experience memorable.
Outside the restaurant, the bright blue awning and neon blue lettering are hard to miss. Bunting’s favorite part of the decor is the jukebox that sits at the front of the entrance.
“So many people are drawn to it because of the look of the 50s-style jukebox,” Bunting said.
When first designing the menu, Bunting knew he wanted to approach hamburgers in a different way.
“At that time, the gourmet hamburger was not the gourmet hamburger,” Bunting said. “It was a fast-service, quick-food type of hamburger. We were trying to do a little bit better-quality product.”
Today, the menu has expanded to include a variety of burger styles, all priced around $8 with fries included. The diner also offers gluten-free buns.
Surprisingly though, the hamburger is not the “must-order” item on the menu. At the Burlington location, chicken is king — Applejack-grilled chicken, to be specific. The sauce is a perfect balance of tangy and sweet and the grill marks on the breast make it Instagram-worthy. Customers can order the chicken a variety of ways: in a wrap, on a sandwich, in a salad or in a basket.
For those looking for more homestyle classics, Blue Plate daily specials such as Monday Chicken Pie and Friday Country Fried Steak will only set you back $6.99 and come with two vegetable sides.
Don’t fill up on the entrees, though, or you might miss arguably one of the best dessert menus in town. Once you’ve had one of their classic hand-dipped milkshakes, you won’t be able to look at the fast food soft-serve again. The peach cobbler sundae is also always a great decision, with layers of homemade cobbler and vanilla ice cream served in a tall, thick glass.
While the positives far outweigh the negatives, customers should be aware of a few things before making the trip. Vegetarian and vegan options on the menu are limited, breakfast isn’t on the menu and there is no “late-night dining.” The diner is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. seven days a week.
Yet these small negatives don’t seem to deter customers, as the diner is still regularly packed after 26 years.
The 50s invokes memories of poodle skirts, suburbia and rock ‘n roll, but the Blue Ribbon Diner serves as a reminder that food culture was just as defined and prominent as music and fashion during the time. The diner has established itself as a time capsule to the past, where great food is just one of its many attractive qualities.
Next time you’re craving meatloaf, chicken tenders or the classic hamburger and fries, hop in the car and head over to Blue Ribbon Diner. If you’re lucky enough to see Bunting while you’re there, pull out a little 50s lingo and tell him he’s got a hip, way-out place.