In the 1940’s and 1950’s, small diners and family restaurants were popping up along major highway routes and in the suburbs of every major city, turning out inexpensive, fast food, to serve a post-WWII economy. It’s easy, then, to see where McDonald’s got its start, assembly-lining identical copies of small, simply-topped, diminutive little three-ounce hamburgers and cheeseburgers. For burger purists, a simply-prepared-and-topped burger can hold its ground with any of the more exotic hamburger styles. Even 60+ years later, this style of burger, simply topped with ketchup, onions, and a dab of pickle, manages to survive, even as the rest of the world gets more and more weighted down by half-pound Wagyu patties and truffled aiolis.
It’s easy to imagine, then, how Don’s Lunch in Westbrook must have appeared when it first opened its doors in 1976. A small lunch truck that must have, at some point, seemed wildly futuristic in its design, with its angled, sloped front, neon signs, and bold orange and yellow racing stripes, now sits moved from its original location across the street from Yudy’s Tire. The truck is now set back from the street, with plenty of signage to let you know you’ve arrived. There are a few picnic tables in the front, and as a line forms in front of the truck, you can see just what it must have looked like when hungry tire-workers lined up in front of the truck for a midday meal.
The menu is dead-simple, as it should be, and as it has been for 35 years. There are chili dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries, onion rings, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, clam cakes, and a burger called simply, “The Big One.” This $4 burger combines two thin griddled hamburger patties with two slices of yellow, very melty American cheese on a soft, steaming-hot white bun.
It’s the platonic ideal version of a McDonald’s cheeseburger that can never possibly exist at the Golden Arches: The beef is never this fresh and piping hot, the bun this soft and warm, or the cheese this melted and gooey. And at exactly ten bucks for our entire order, you’d be hard-pressed to get through the McDonald’s drive-thru for less money. You can top the burger (or any of the lesser, single-patty versions) with anything you’d like, for no extra charge. We went with mustard, raw onion, and sweet pepper relish. The onions provided a satisfying crunch, and the sweetness of the red pepper relish was a nice complement to the cheesy, beefy onslaught that lay within.
After an initial, tentative taste, I found that I accidentally wolfed down the rest of the burger in seconds. I tried to make a show of nibbling at the frozen onion rings, those crunchy little Burger King-style re-hydrated, heavily-battered hoops that taste way more like onion than even actual onions do. Ultimately, though, I was happy to have a second, single burger steeping in a Styrofoam box, ready to be spirited home and eaten greedily, standing in the kitchen. I didn’t order french fries, but based on the disappointing, standard-issue onion rings, I suggest saving room for another burger.
And another burger, you’ll have: I overheard one of the employees, from deep inside the truck, mention that Don’s Lunch had been doing very well lately, due in part to the new extended hours (Don’s Lunch is open until 2 A.M. on weekend nights), but also to Don’s recent “Big One” burger specials, which cuts the price of the burger in half from 9 P.M. to 11 P.M. I can imagine this causes quite the late-night scene, as the worker I spoke to went on to explain that during this special, customers hunker down and eat two or three of the burgers at a time.
In a world where small, independently-run businesses are getting harder and harder to find, and as every town in America begins to look like the same slightly-remixed combination of Best Buy, Starbucks, and Target, finding a place like Don’s Lunch, a dining option that gives you some sense of place, is a relief. It’s not just satisfying in the way it harkens back to a time when real people made real food for their hard-working customers; this isn’t a dining establishment that is coasting on reputation, or on nostalgia. That wouldn’t be enough. It’s that Don’s Lunch also happens to be serving some of the best burgers in the area, as they have been since the very beginning.