The traffic light at Leonard Street and Plainfield Avenue has got to be one of the longest in the city of Grand Rapids. And while that's a tad irksome at times, especially when you're in a rush, it does give you time to check out the surroundings at that intersection.
One establishment you'll notice there where those two busy streets and the railroad track all come together is a tiny red brick building with black shingles that looks like it couldn't fit more than ten people inside. This would be the Choo Choo Grill, a mainstay at Leonard and Plainfield that has been serving "the best burgers on Earth or anywhere else since 1946," as the long sleeve shirt hanging just inside the door will tell you.
I can now attest to that fact myself because after driving by numerous times and thinking aloud that I needed to stop at "That Little Caboose Restaurant," as I came to call it, I finally did just that the other day, learning for myself that the Choo Choo's Depot Burger (featuring cheddar cheese and ham), at least, lived up to the hype.
My girlfriend and I visited the tiny diner for the first time on an unseasonably warm and wet day in early January. Seeing the place from the outside, I definitely thought the interior was going to be small, but when we walked through the door, there was actually even less seating and less space than I'd expected — which, in my opinion, was not a bad thing.
With just two corner booths and ten stools wrapped around the main counter, anyone eating at the Choo Choo can expect the wait staff to be up close and personal, but don't worry: they're super friendly. Moreover, the limited amount of space has a way of making people more sociable; you're more likely to start a conversation with the person sitting next to you when your elbows are practically touching, that is.
That's how I ended up chatting briefly with one of the Choo Choo's regulars, in fact, an older woman named Jackie. "If you come in when they're busy," she told me, "usually by the time you place your order and your food is ready, there's a place to sit available."
Her statement proved prophetic almost immediately, as three men shuffled in, noticed only one or two stools were empty and promptly decided they would head back out and find another place to grab lunch. "You don't need to go, we've got room!" the woman behind the counter assured them. And sure enough, they were seated all together not five minutes later and had plates of food in front of them just as quickly.
One of those gentlemen later commented that the diner ought to sacrifice a few parking spots for more interior space, to which an employee responded: "Bigger isn't always better."
I would definitely have to agree with that assessment in this case because I was totally loving the Choo Choo's intimate vibe. Of course, having originally opened seven decades ago, they had the whole retro thing going for them, too, with old-fashioned Coca Cola signage here, there, and everywhere; an antiquated newspaper clipping framed at one end of the counter; and pretty reasonable prices (that can be considered retro, right?).
Before our visit was over, Jackie had one more bit of advice for me: it is more than worth it to stop in before they quit serving breakfast at 11 a.m. She didn't make any specific recommendations but a quick glance up at the menu revealed such options as the Hungry Fireman's Special (3 eggs, 2 bacon, 1 sausage, 1/2 ham, potatoes, and toast) for $6.99 and The Big Red Caboose (2 eggs, corn beef hash, and toast) for $5.39, along with other appropriately-themed dishes.
And if their breakfast is anything like the aforementioned Depot Burger I ended up having for lunch that day — or anything like the super-satisfying BLT my girlfriend ordered — then I can assure you that a return trip to the Choo Choo Grill is certainly in my future, and sooner rather than later.
The only problem will be getting my butt out the door in time. Sad that I consider 11 a.m. kind of early, isn't it?