Friday, April 12, 2024

PHALON’S FILE: Remember White Castle and Frank the Grill Man?

An expatriate Jersey friend was distraught this past week. A couple years ago he rejoiced when White Castle announced it was coming to his new hometown of Phoenix. But now he learned that his local Castle will be bring robots into the kitchens to make the burgers.

We remembered Frank the overnight grill man at the Verona, New Jersey, White Castle. An affable man of some years, he dealt with the rowdy 2 a.m. crowds with grace and aplomb. But if you ever mouthed off to one of the counter ladies, he’d drag you to the parking lot by your ear.

I just don’t see a robot offering such support to coworkers. Maybe they will when they evolve into Cylons or something, but they wouldn’t have Frank’s charm and judgment.

Many Garden State people of a certain age have memories, or perhaps recovered memories, of late nights at White Castle. It was and remains a Jersey dining experience up there with diners, TEC on an everything bagel and Texas wieners. Many natives of the state who have moved else-where long for the taste of “sliders,” “murder burgers” and other delicacies of White Castle.

Starting in the Midwest, the chain dropped its anchor in New Jersey not long after its 1921 founding in Kansas. The locations in Clifton and Verona come to my mind when I think of White Castle. Both were White Castles as they were meant to be, with trim buildings sheathed in white porcelain with stainless steel interiors.

In fact, that’s where I sometimes have problems with contemporary White Castles. Most have ample seating and have been remodeled to look more like other fast-food restaurants.

The one in Phoenix looks more like a project from Home & Garden TV than the drive-in Castles of my youth. In the 1970s, most White Castles had minimal seating with most people eating in the parking lot, and what could go wrong with a hundred people in a tight parking lot at two in the morning?

That’s pretty much why the one in Verona no longer exists.

Square White Castle hamburgers were engineered to be eaten in a parking lot or in a car, particularly in the wee hours. Depending on how much money we had at the end of the night we’d either head toward the diner or, if funds were low as they usually were, we’d make the journey to White Castle.

The line was usually out the door in those days. Cheeseburgers at that time were 18 cents. The menu was simple: burgers, fries, onions rings (the best) and fish sandwiches. Like today, most people eat them in multiples of three, packed neatly in a “sack” (this was, after all, a Midwest institution).

They would be lined up neatly on the dashboard and the resulting steam would reveal every bit of crud on the inside of the windshield.

Even then, White Castle served “breakfast.” It was socially acceptable to have sliders at 7 a.m. for one’s morning meal. White Castle has since joined the other fast-food chains by offering actual breakfast items for breakfast, but cheeseburgers can still be had.

And while White Castle may have conformed to the contemporary fast-food model, they did set the table for McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Fast food chains were unknown in 1921.

The stainless-steel and porcelain enamel buildings were designed to evoke cleanliness at a time when the population was still avoiding beef after the meat-packing industry scandals in the early 20th Century. And while maybe not a priority for hungry teenagers at 2 a.m., White Castle continues to stress cleanliness in its restaurants.

I’m just glad Frank the Grill Man didn’t have to see his successors replaced by machines.

Joe Phalon
Joe Phalon, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Joe was lured out of retirement by the opportunity to be a part of the Ridge View Echo. During a decades-long career in publishing and journalism, he has covered government on many levels from local school boards to the United States Supreme Court.

Along the way, Joe has worked at American Lawyer Magazine, The National Law Journal and The Record among other publications, and as the Press Officer of Columbia Law School. His work has been recognized with several first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Press Association.

Being part of the Ridge View Echo brings Joe back to his roots and the kind of news coverage he loves: Telling the stories of people and local communities as well as keeping an eye on how their money is spent by their government officials.

Joe lives in Blairstown with his wife Rose, the founder of Quilting for a Cause, and their two wiener dogs. He is an artist in his spare time.