Within the Seattle city limits, the most frequently ordered meal — I found no academic or scientific studies that track these statistics — is probably one at Dick’s Drive-In. In a city that has grown into a disparate community with splintered interests, standing in line outdoors at Dick’s to eat a hamburger is as universal an experience as one can have.
Chefs sneak meals at Dick’s. Street urchins line up here with the change they hustle. Bill Gates, variably the richest man in the world, dines somewhat regularly at Dick’s, showing up usually on a Sunday.
The menu is both inexpensive and simple, changing very little since the fast-food restaurant opened in Wallingford in 1954. Only one item exceeds $2 in price, the Dick’s Deluxe, one of only four sandwiches Dick’s sells. It sells only one side dish, French fries, in only one size. Beverages and ice cream (in the form of sundaes, cones and floats) aside, the biggest choice a customer makes is how fancy he or she wants his or her burger. The Dick’s special is a hamburger with lettuce, pickles and mayonnaise added; the deluxe ($2.50) has two patties, cheese and a sauce made of relish.
Until 1971, Dick’s sold only two kinds of sandwiches, hamburgers and cheeseburgers. It briefly considered adding some kind of chicken sandwich in the 1980s, but wisely decided it unnecessary. Change is taken seriously and not often undertaken in the Spady family, which owns and operates all five of the Dick’s Drive-In restaurants. It added the special and deluxe to complete with other quarter-pound burgers. It also removed orange soda from its menu and added diet soda.
Its biggest change in decades will come next year when Dick’s opens its sixth restaurant in Edmonds, a risk for the company, which operates only in Seattle at the moment. Dick’s opened in Wallingford (still its busiest outlet) on Jan. 28, 1954 despite much skepticism from bankers who declined to give co-founder Dick Spady and his two partners a loan to open a California-style burger stand in cold, wet Seattle. The restaurant was instantly successful, leading to a second outlet one year later on Capitol Hill.
Dick’s expanded to a third store on Crown Hill in 1960, a fourth in Lake City in 1963 and ventured out of Seattle for the first time in 1965, opening a restaurant in Bellevue that closed in 1974, brought to its end by a Herfy’s across the street that had indoor seating. (At the time, all the Dick’s Drive-Ins were walk-up stands with no seating.) The same year the Bellevue store closed, the Queen Anne Dick’s opened, and for a few years was its busiest outlet; it remains the only store with indoor seating. The Edmonds Dick’s at 21900 Highway 99, will look like almost all the others, with a 1950s-style, walk-up counter, and no indoor seating.
“That’s our niche,” said Jim Spady, the second-oldest son of founder and namesake Dick Spady. Jim Spady, a lawyer by training, is now the second in command at Dick’s.
“People want us not to change,” he said. “They want their experience to be the same as it was last week, last year, 10 years ago, or even 30 years ago. We try to honor that as much as we can.”
Unlike its competition, Dick’s does not have a 99-cent menu nor does it allow customers to customize orders. It does not serve breakfast. It does not sell combination meals by number or offer to super-size your soda or fries. It does not sell salads, nor any other form of protein besides beef, which it religiously boasts to be fresh and never frozen.
Which is what got me in trouble in August with readers, who responded with vociferous and hostile comments to a column I wrote about my hunt for the “best” burger in town, a determination that is as dangerous as it is subjective in our burger-crazy culture. Not only did I not pick Dick’s as the best burger, but I did not really consider it. The decision was more compliment than insult; Dick’s is its own category. Nonetheless, I also lumped Dick’s into the $5-burger category (so that I could broadly compare it to burgers at Kidd Valley, Burgermaster and Red Mill, which is perhaps unfair since theirs cost twice as much) and very loosely implied it used frozen patties like other chains in that bunch.
The onslaught came quickly with Taliban-like ferocity. The article’s seemingly innocuous and unimportant insinuations were received almost as personal insults and were responded to in kind.
I had tapped into passions I suspect have little to do with the provenance or condition of its beef or the exact prices of burgers. For the record, while Dick’s does use factory-processed, pre-formed patties like most chains (it has been supplied for 30 years by the MacDonald Meat Company in South Seattle, which grinds corn-fed beef shipped from Nebraska), the patties do indeed arrive fresh and are kept so until they are cooked. While Dick’s might not have the best burger in Seattle, it seems to have the most loved.
“Food evokes memories of a certain time,” Spady attempted to explain. “Eating here brings those memories back. It is part of being in Seattle.”
Dick’s is an anomaly in Seattle, an old joint that has not changed much and still thrives decades after it started. Few can claim the same, Ivar’s maybe, and on the high end, Canlis. To resist change and survive — let alone flourish — is difficult, perhaps especially in Seattle, often characterized as a forward-thinking, forward-moving city. Its institutions are new, its shared memories young and few, as are its dining traditions. Most of what we treasure today and relate to as our own — fusion taco trucks, gourmet coffee, pho, banh mi, gastro-pubs, artisan pizza, and all the smartly run establishments that bank off the farm-to-table concept — have not yet stood the test of time. Somehow, Dick’s has.
The simplicity of its menu is, now in 2010, almost charming, given all the ways that choices consume us in the rest of our lives. Its prices, while not quite as low as the "value" menus of national chains, are strengths. It is reassuring to see actual potatoes from Idaho being cut, skins and all, and the milkshakes mixed individually, in the restaurant.
The magic of Dick’s is in its timelessness.
“Dick’s fries were my first solid food,” said Hanna Hilsenberg, 22, a University of Washington student. “I grew up with it. I’d take it over McDonald’s any day.”
Today, Hilsenberg works at the Wallingford Dick’s, close to where her father grew up. He also grew up on Dick’s. She earns $12 an hour and gets almost $3,000 a year in tuition money from her employer, one of the benefits of working there. So in different ways, the restaurant has been a part of her entire life.
Fanaticism is cultivated over time, built on loyalty, constructed over decades, not years. More than 130,000 Facebook users have added Dick’s to their “like” list. Many live out of the city and out of the country, most of them in Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and Mexico. Four live in Sierra Leone.
While a burger served at Dick’s is not appreciably different than one served at other fast-food restaurants, the experience of eating there is singular and unique to Seattle. Because it has resisted outside ownership and investment or franchising, it has expanded very little. Its office, across the street from its Wallingford store, represents its small-scale approach. Its handful of employees work in a converted, 100-year-old cottage with no foundation. The company has added space over the years, building an addition in the back 20 years ago, but has no plans to relocate or replace the existing structure. Profits go into operations, not infrastructure.
Dick Spady, 87, is still the president of the company although he is not very involved with daily operations. He and his wife live nearby and sometimes walk to the office. He opened Dick’s with a Navy buddy, Warren Ghormley, and a dentist, Dr. “Tom” Thomas, who was the boss of Ghormley’s wife and a professor at the University of Washington's dental school. After carefully studying a small chain of drive-in burger stands in California called McDonald’s, the three decided to start a similar restaurant in Seattle.
As equal partners, they each invested $5,000; Dick Spady had to beg and borrow to come up with his share. Unable to secure a bank loan, the partners leased a lot in Wallingford and paid for the construction of their first restaurant with a promise to share profits for five years with the contractor, who was strongly advised against entering into the deal. It turned out to be, obviously, a windfall for him and all the investors.
In 1991, Dick Spady bought out his partners, who have since died, for several million dollars — the outlay is a big reason the company did not expand until this year — turning Dick’s into a true family business. Three of his five children work for the company. His oldest child, John, is the technology officer; Jim handles most of the business and legal affairs; Walt is the financial officer.
Jim's 24-year-old daughter, Jasmine Donovan, a Navy ensign, will likely join the family business full time in a few years. She would be the first of Dick Spady's grandchildren to join the company, which she will be expected to run much the way it has been run since 1954.
If you go: Capitol Hill, 115 Broadway Ave. East, (206) 323-1300. Queen Anne, 500 Queen Anne Ave. N., (206) 285-5155. Crown Hill, 9208 Holman Road NW, (206) 783-5233. Lake City, 12325 30th Ave NE, (206) 363-7777, Wallingford, 111 N.E. 45th St., (206) 632-5125. All stores open 10:30 a.m.-2 a.m.