Business was brisk on Tuesday at Chicago’s only drive-in, making it a rare outlier in the city as — according to the Illinois Restaurant Association — business is down as much as 75 percent for restaurants across the the state due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Superdawg Drive-In has been around for 72 years in the Northwest Side neighborhood of Norwood Park, a memorable Chicago icon punctuated by those familiar giant fiberglass hot dogs standing on the restaurant’s roof.
While the state forced restaurants to close their dining rooms due to the pandemic, Superdawg’s customers can still pull up into the restaurant’s parking lot, order from the intercom, wait for the carhop to deliver their order, and enjoy hot dogs, fries, and milkshakes from the comfort of their vehicles.
Superdawg was founded by Maurie and Flaurie Berman in 1948, who served a twist on Chicago-style dogs using thick, house-made beef sausages. Unlike the “salad on the bun” featured on traditional Chicago dogs, Superdawg takes a simpler approach, with with yellow mustard, relish, and chopped onions.
On Chicago’s Far North Side, the restaurant overlooks the three-way intersection of Milwaukee, Devon, and Nagle. As Chicago’s last drive-in, it became a regional draw for city dwellers and folks living in the northern suburbs. While new diners capitalize on pastiche, Superdawg is an original that continues to serve its food in blue cardboard containers covered with quirky copy. The Bermans’s hospitality helped make the stand a legend. They opened a location in Midway International Airport and they’ve collaborated on a beer. Superman’s Lois Lane has even stopped by because the reporter needed to scratch her itch for a hot dog and crinkle-cut fries. The Bermans, which helped make the restaurant welcoming and family friendly, have both since died and left Superdawg to the next generation.
There was a nostalgic feel in the air on Tuesday at Superdawg for Maurie Berman’s son-in-law, Don Drucker; it reminded him of a time before AC was readily available, when families would take summer drives to get out of their sweltering homes. “You used to take a drive in your car have a little little breeze and find a destination to go,” he said. “I guess, maybe, we’re hearkening a little back to those days.”
Customers can no longer eat inside the restaurant, where a modest counter with a few stools served as what the state would define as a dining room. Carhops, meanwhile, are attempting to minimize contact with customers: The metal trays that once hung on a car’s door to hold the food — which is now brought out in sealed to-go bags — are gone, and customers are no longer allowed to touch the handheld credit card readers used for payment. The system has worked, even if it gets slightly awkward when it comes to adding a tip, since employees must enter the amount themselves after asking diners.
Overall, Superdawg is doing fine. Even though March signals the first day of spring, Chicago can feel very wintry this month. Given that, business has been solid, Drucker said. He hasn’t had a chance to speak with other restaurant owners, but he believes the industry will need intervention from the federal government to survive the crisis. While the food world faces plenty of questions, at least — for now — Superdawg can provide Chicagoans an escape if they need one.
“We’re doing the best we can,” Drucker said.