The “Choo-Choo” diner in Des Plaines, Illinois, has been serving its hamburgers, fries, and shakes since 1951, four years before the very first “McDonald’s” opened its doors just down the street. This historically humble diner is a unique, delicious, and exciting experience for the whole family. The history and charm that surrounds this restaurant is apparent from the first sight of the electric toy train that circles every few minutes, carrying the best versions of traditional American fare. Cheeseburger anyone?
The History of the Choo-Choo Diner
In 1951 the creators and first owners of the Choo-Choo, James Ballowe and his wife Marilyn, opened the diner in hopes of creating an experience that would entertain children and adults of all ages. The diner quickly became a local hit.
In 1955 another hamburger joint opened in Des Plaines. A man known as Ray Kroc opened that restaurant, and named it “McDonald’s.”
Kroc assured the Ballowes that his restaurant would not be competition for the Choo-Choo, sighting the lack of seating at his joint as a weakness.
The Ballowes were not discouraged or intimidated by this potential competition. According to the official history on the Choo-Choo’s website, they knew that the Choo-Choo experience was what kept customers coming back, and were confident the residents of Des Plaines would support them and their restaurant, something they have done for over 60 years.
The Ballowes owned the Choo-Choo for 25 years, until James decided to retire and pass on the legacy.
The ownership of the Choo-Choo was then passed on to another family for another 25 years. After they had their turn, Jean Paxton, the current owner of the historic sight, seized her opportunity.
When her son was only a small child Jean began bringing him to the Choo-Choo as a treat that eventually turned into a tradition. She always wanted to have her own restaurant, and always had a fascination with the Choo-Choo. When the opportunity came to buy the hamburger joint, Jean took it.
Jean has owned the restaurant for 15 years now and is always around. She is very involved in the everyday operations of the restaurant. She knows many of her regular customers by name and her relationship with the community is evident. Jean can be found cooking in the kitchen or greeting customers in the front of house, and of course she is the main conductor of the electric train.
She hopes to keep the Choo-Choo’s train running for many years to come, and believes that her restaurant is what Des Plaines deserves to be remembered for.
The Main Attraction
This diner’s long-time motto has been “hamburgers on wheels,” a motto that hardly needs explaining.
The main attraction of the Choo-Choo restaurant is of course the choo-choo train… or should it be called the “chew-chew train”?
Whenever I visit the Choo-Choo with my family everyone gets excited to see the little engine stop in front of their seats at the bar carrying traditional American meals. As the train passes, the customers “ooh” and “aah” and sometimes even clap.
The Choo-Choo is a small and humble diner and so seating is limited and highly sought after. The restaurant features bar seating and booth seating. There are 8 booths, which seat 4 people each, and 10 seats at the bar. In order to have your meal delivered by choo-choo, be sure to arrive early and grab a seat at the bar or at one of the four booths that connect to the bar. These are the seats that have access to the railroad. Some families sit at a booth by the window and allow the children to have seats at the bar. This is a smart idea since bar seating usually has a longer wait time than booth seating. There are no reservations and no hostess at the Choo-Choo, only a “first come, first served” rule.
Even though the food is delivered directly to those siting by the railroad, a waiter is the only one allowed to actually remove it from the train. This is so that there is not confusion about who’s burger just took a ride on the train.
If a restaurant has been in business for as long as the Choo-Choo, then the food must be good enough to keep customers coming back.
The novelty of having a train serve the meal is especially enjoyable when the meal itself is unique yet nostalgic. The food at the Choo-Choo is all made to order and fresh, and customers have taken notice.
When I visit the Choo-Choo with my family I like to go simple and old-fashioned. My favorite things to order are a cheeseburger and a delicious root-beer float. Everyone has their own style when choosing what they’ll eat, and the Choo-Choo certainly has some great variety.
Some of the long-time local favorites include:
“The Choo-Choo Burger” – A traditional “smashed” hamburger topped with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles.
The Pure Beef “Chicago Style” Hot Dog– A true “Chicago style” hotdog; topped with hot peppers, relish, tomato, pickle, and mustard.
The Turkey Chili– a fan favorite that can be served as a side, on top of a hot dog, or as a main course.
The Choo-Choo also serves desserts and ice-cream drinks. The malts and shakes are a favorite for kids and adults alike. Flavors include chocolate, vanilla, banana, strawberry or Oreo and are all made with premium hand dipped ice cream.
There is a true sense of community at the Choo-Choo. For many customers, this restaurant symbolizes family tradition. Parents who now bring their children here were once children themselves, coming to the Choo-Choo with their parents. Coming here for birthdays, celebrations, or simply to eat a good burger.
I am one of these children who is lucky to have a dad who developed a love for the Choo-Choo restaurant when his parents brought their children here in the 1980s.
Since I lived in Brazil until I was about 8 years old, I only met the Choo-Choo on my first visit to Chicago in 2002, but ever since then I have been fascinated. As a child I thought, “now this is something that can only happen in America.” I thought the idea of having a toy train deliver burgers was absolutely brilliant and borderline magic. Now, even as a 21 year old college student, every time my dad comes to visit me in Chicago I ask to take a trip to the Choo-Choo. My mom, dad, and I now take my little brothers, ages 7 and 9, there. They are also fascinated by the concept… proof that this restaurant has the potential to continue dazzling children for generations.
Just seeing young patrons of the Choo-Choo patiently await the delivery of their meals as their parents and grandparents observe with big smile on their faces is enough to make you feel the love that the community has for this dining experience.
Des Plaines, Illinois is a northwest suburb of Chicago. If you are visiting the downtown, it is well worth the trip to experience this historic restaurant, especially if you are looking for a fun meal with kids.
The best way to get to the train-themed diner from downtown Chicago is, of course, to take the train.
Taking the Union Pacific/ Northwest line of the Metra commuter train is the best and most comfortable ride. Get on at Ogilvie Transportation Center and take the UP/NW line towards Crystal Lake. You’ll want to get off at the Des Plaines station, which is only a few steps away from the Choo-Choo. This ride will take about a half an hour.
This post was written by Alexandra Olsen, a college student intern for TravelingMom.com. Her love of travel began at a very young age–traveling with her family to little beach towns growing up in Brazil. She has her own personal travel blog, Trail Mix, which she started while spending a summer studying abroad in Norway.