Oh Jimmy Mack, when are you coming back?
Simple rhythms and melodies of mid-century rock n roll music float through the room, just as clear and clean as the boomerang formica countertop and the red vinyl-and-chrome stools surrounding it. On the wall, a Felix the Cat clock side-eyes patrons as its tail ticks lazily back and forth. Those walls are lined with railroad memorabilia: black-and-white photographs, a vintage ad for Lionel model trains, defunct railroad crossing signs, and, of course, the train track that runs past every single seat in the house.
"We're not a kids restaurant," co-owner Dale Eisenberg says often, about 2Toots Train Whistle Grill. "We're an adult restaurant that kids love."
The train that runs an incessant loop around that track notwithstanding, Dale says that's the most important thing to know about his restaurant: It's for the grown-ups. I had to see that for myself, so on a brisk late-winter's day, I packed my 5-year-old daughter into the car for a trip to Bartlett, Illinois, to 2Toots' flagship location.
This is a place built on nostalgia, according to Dale. He and and his business partner Mike grew up running around the same neighborhood in Toledo, Ohio, fast friends since way back in first grade. "I couldn't imagine running any business without Mike. We've always been together." To that end, 2Toots is designed around the lunch counters at the drugstores they'd escape to when they were kids.
And that's the feeling they tried to evoke with their restaurant, a place where kids would ditch their bikes out front, and belly up to the counter for a coke and some fries. But today's kids don't have the same kind of free rein of the neighborhood that Dale and Mike enjoyed, and so they don't have those memories. But their parents and grandparents do—and Dale and Mike built this space for them.
The menu was designed for the parents too. They'd had a long-successful menu—with a burger that was lauded by Food + Wine—but families still weren't coming as often as Dale would have liked. So he talked to his customers and discovered they'd prefer healthier options.
Soon, the eatery was collaborating with Bill Kurtis's Tallgrass Beef, which now supplies grass-fed meat for its burgers. The company also created a special blend hot dog just for 2Toots. Now, says Dale, families can come here more regularly, without the guilt.
The train rolls past every seat in the house, and it runs constantly, never stopping unless there's food to deliver. But make no mistake—that is no toy train. It's a detailed scale model, the kind that aficionados collect and trade. The one running the tracks when we visit is a commuter Amtrak engine, looking just as authentic as the one that stops at the Metra station across the street. "Lots of people take the train in from the city and then come here, make a day of it," says Dale.
What he really wants people to know: "We are [not] Chuck E Cheese with a train in it . . . [we're about] emotion and family connectivity." Instead of looking at their screens, "[families] are engaged with one another." He sees grandparents telling kids about train rides they used to take, and the kids asking questions. "They're all talking to each other. It's really something to see."
I found myself doing the same thing with my daughter, talking about downtown commutes, and doing the hard sell on a train ride to St. Louis. When my daughter said she'd rather take the car, I told her, But you don't have to stay in your car seat; we can walk around, have a snack, look out the windows together . . . completely caught up in the romance that trains evoke.
But, again, as Dale says, this place is for grownups. "We're not a kiddie restaurant. I get a lot of people who are adults without kids, and they'll [say], 'I just want to see if it's okay for my niece or my nephew.' Baloney!" he laughs, "You wanted to see if it was okay for you." In fact, it's often not the kids, but the grownups who'll knock the trains off tracks, "Kids poke them sometimes, but the adults, they think it's funny to put stuff on them. They screw up the trains like crazy."
In fact, Dale and Mike have long resisted their counterparts' tendency to cater to the short set with "quarters machines and whack-a-mole." The only ride in the joint puts a button on the nostalgia: Champion, a lovingly restored horse ride, the kind that still stood outside some grocery stores when I was a kid. "Can I ride Champion?" my daughter asks on our way out. And since it still costs just a quarter, how can I say no?