I have finally completed my Don Hall’s decathlon.
I have eaten at all 10 Fort Wayne area locations, and a couple more that are now closed. And, ironically, the final destination was the local chain’s oldest restaurant – the Original Drive-In on Bluffton Road.
The Drive-In hasn’t changed much over the years except for an expansion that included the construction of the Food Factory Express drive-through next door. It is round, which is how it was built to accommodate cars parking around it for curb service decades ago, and its paneling, stained glass and dated furnishings were probably there when your grandparents dined there as teenagers.
But the atmosphere wasn’t necessarily a negative. It was clean and kind of nifty. It was more nostalgic than outdated, and it made me smile because it reminded me of so many places I had eaten at years ago with my grandparents.
The straightforward menu has some nostalgia to it, too. Breakfast is offered all day, and there is a little bit of everything, from the classic Buster Burger to filet mignon. But one thing it didn’t have was an appetizer section.
So I chose one of the Drive-In’s salads as a starter; the Parkside Caesar, for which I paid a little extra to include blackened salmon. The romaine hearts were fresh, crisp and perfectly dressed, and there was just enough parmesan and croutons. The salmon was nicely seared, and I had no issues with anything on this tasty salad.
Varying soups are also available daily, and the one I got to try was tasty. The cauliflower and cheese soup had finely chopped bits of the namesake vegetable, and every drop of the bright yellow, cheese-laden broth was infused with cauliflower flavor. With a little much-needed salt and pepper – a running theme at this Hall’s – I enjoyed every bite.
I cannot tell you how the minestrone I ordered tasted, because I never received it on a busy night when the restaurant seemed understaffed. I also had to tell the person who rang me up to remove it from my ticket before I paid because my server did not.
That was the only service blemish, however. Even though she was swamped with customers on that busy night, my server did a good job of handling everything else and even apologized more than once because she realized she was in the weeds and might have missed something.
During another visit when there were more servers working, I could not have had better service. And this time, it was how my server dealt with another error that proved how good she was at her job.
After strongly considering the daily special beef and noodles, I instead decided to try the New York strip steak, which the server said was the best steak option. I paired it with hash browns, to which I had onions added, and it all looked fantastic when it arrived. The steak had beautiful grill marks, and the hash browns were as good as it gets – crisp in some places, soft in others, not in need of salt and with sweet, nicely caramelized onions.
But when I bit into that steak, it wasn’t the horrible lack of salt or any other seasoning that killed it. It tasted like sulfur, it was charred so badly. When I flipped it over, those grill marks gave way to a thick layer of black covering the whole thing. I could not eat another bite.
When I pointed this out to the server, she apologized and immediately offered to replace it, but then asked whether I wanted some of those beef and noodles instead. After seeing a heaping plate go to a neighboring table, I did. And in a really classy move, she said she insisted I keep the tasty hash browns so I did not have to sit idly while the rest of my party enjoyed their meals.
When she returned not two minutes later, she gave me a big plate of not just the beef and noodles, but a big scoop of mashed potatoes – as perfect as the hash browns – and corn. You gotta have the sides; that’s what makes it, getting that all mixed together, she said.
This dish was fantastic. Yes, it needed salt and pepper, but the big Amish-style noodles and the big hunks of slow-cooked, tender pot roast were what I expected from an old-school diner/drive-in. In the end, I was glad the steak was ruined.
Other solid finds:
The Big Fish Dinner included a large fillet of cod that I chose to have pan-fried instead of deep-fried. It had a crunchy brown layer of breading on the underside but was just dusted on top, and it came swimming in butter.
The Big Easy Burger was another just-what-I-would-expect-from-a-drive-in treat. The thick patty was nicely seared and seasoned with a zesty blackening rub, and the sweet caramelized onions and blue cheese crumbles played off each other nicely. It also had a fried egg on it that would have been great if the yolk was runny like I requested instead of cooked through.
I loved the fresh homemade coleslaw, which had white and green cabbage shavings, a little carrot and a sweet, creamy dressing.
The pineapple upside-down cake – a dessert as old-school as the Original Drive-In – was moist, gooey and sweet, and the pineapple on top (bottom?) was like candy. The Very Berry – which had the perfect combination of sweet and tart with its red raspberries, blueberries and strawberries – and fresh strawberry pies were also great.
As good as the beef was with the noodles, I was expecting much of the same from the Kansas City Roast Beef, listed under Specialties, but was disappointed with this sandwich. Instead of slow-cooked, tender roast, it was made with a thinly sliced processed product that tasted like cheap cold cuts. I asked for au jus instead of horseradish or barbecue sauce, but that, too, was a bad idea, as the jus was way too salty and tasted like it was from a can or an instant mix.
Other glaring flaws included unseasoned canned green beans as a side and a restroom that was embarrassing for a place as reputable as Hall’s.
Restaurant: Don Hall’s Original Drive-In
Address: 1502 Bluffton Road
Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Parkside Caesar ($4.95; $8.35 with salmon), soup ($2.10 cup; $2.50 bowl), NY strip ($11.95), The Big Easy Burger ($7.49), Big Fish Dinner ($8.95), Kansas City Roast Beef ($4.95), strawberry pie ($2.95)
Rating breakdown: Food: * (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: ¦ (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).