Food, like any other aspect of human culture, has its landmarks. Local touchstones, the food you grew up with can be felt from great distances away, even by people who didn't grow up nearby. Ask just about anyone across the world what constitutes American food and chances are "hamburger" will be in their top two answers. The burger's invention at Louis Lunch in New Haven is well known and, regionally, so is Danny's Drive-In in Stratford. This is why a "For Sale" sign on the building has met with such concern - it's only been seen twice before in 83 years.
Danny Smith opened Danny's Drive-In in 1935 and the stand has been steadily cooking burgers, hot dogs, and now much more for over eightdecades. Its location, on a corner of land on the Stratford side of the drawbridge separating Stratford from Milford across the Housatonic River, has been prime real estate since George Washington - yes, that one - ordered a bridge be built there during his inspection tour of the new United States. Ever since, each successive bridge has borne his name. Danny's was originally a three-season hamburger stand with a flip-up facade until another president, Dwight Eisenhower this time, ordered the construction of an interstate highway system in the U.S. The operation moved out of the way of the forthcoming I-95, and opened the current building in 1952, where it rode the cresting wave of the boom years all the way to today. Thousands of vehicle per day pass by on the Post Road between the two towns, and many of the people grabbing lunch or dinner on any given day are the children and grandchildren of people who took them to Danny's. It is, as I said, a landmark.
"It's just time for me," said Missy Benedetto, the current owner, who was working in the prep area when I walked in. It's not difficult to talk to someone in the kitchen at Danny's after walking in. They're only about five feet away. "I have a nutritionist degree and I want to get into farming. Maybe pigs and cows and some rescue horses. My little guy is nine now, and it's time to do something else."
Benedetto got into Danny's the same way as anyone else, she grew up with it.
"I was a little girl and I was just leaving Polly's [School of Gymnastics, right up the road], and I saw a For Sale sign on the place. I said 'Daddy you have to buy Danny's, it's my favorite hamburger in the whole wide world.' I didn't know it, but he'd been planning to buy it for a while."
The Benedettos became the third owner of Danny's, after Smith sold the stand to Larry Pagliero to become the second, in 1947. He ran the business until 1981, and stayed on to train the new family.
"The first thing the regulars all want to know is if it will stay the same," Benedetto explained. "And it won't change. The idea is we're selling the business, not just the location."
"I'm planning to stay on for two months or so after the sale," Missy Benedetto told us. "I'm going to train the new people and make sure the regulars still see a familiar face."
The famous cheeseburger with The Works: American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, black pepper, and the Danny's trademark ring of green bell pepper, was a formula created by Danny Smith in 1935, and was taught, along with sourcing for the meat, bun, etc. to Pagliero by him, and to the Benedettos by Pagliero in turn.
The other hallmark of Danny's is Kuhn's chili, which they were the first to introduce to the Connecticut culinary scene. With no beans, and no chunks of meat, the recipe makes the chili a perfect topping instead of something you'd eat on its own from a bowl. Far thinner than a stew, and entire planes of existence more than a simple hot sauce, the chili is a fiery dose of umami which can be added to just about anything on the extensive menu for 50 cents. Make any side order "Crazy," with Kuhn's chili, cheddar cheese sauce, jalapenos, and onions for less than $3.
A typical order may be something like a cheeseburger with the Works, a Devil dog, chocolate shake, and a side order of Frings: crinkle cut fries and onion rings mixed together. The rings and fries, done separately, are both crispy and fresh when they arrive, and the onion rings are a deep golden brown with a substantial core of tender onion.
Specify ketchup, mustard, or mayo on your burger, but The Works neither comes with, or requires, any. Each 1/4lb burger wears a slight crust from its time on a flat top griddle and arrives somewhere between medium rare and medium. It's juicy enough to make the wax paper it comes in turn translucent. The simple toppings - Smith originally called it "a burger with a salad" - may not be the height of fashionable, but they are venerable. The dusting of pepper across the melted cheese, the juices from the meat soaking into the slice of onion, and the sweet crunch of the fresh bell pepper are what make this option a classic which rings in the memory of any local, no matter where they live. Danny's was exactly tied with Modern Apizza in places I thought about weekly, and hit up immediately upon returning home, when I lived in Georgia, six-plus hundred miles away. My grandfather apparently thought the same, and took my father there for some of his first solid food upon my grandfather's return from aircraft carrier duty in the Pacific during World War II.
The milkshake mixer sits on a cooler holding hard ice cream and jugs of milk - the shakes are made, not extruded from a machine - and can be had in the standard flavors, along with options like peanut butter (the real stuff), and seasonally, Micalizzi's cannoli ice cream.
Corona beer-battered cod and fried clam strips are standard waterside favorites, and Danny's may be one of the most accessible sources of lobster rolls every summer; made Connecticut-style, naturally, served warm with melted butter on a toasted hot dog roll.
The siren song of Danny's Drive-In hot dogs has steered many a driver off course and into their little lot by the river. The locally made dogs are slow cooked before a hot flash which makes them snap when you bite into them, and are offered in abundant variety. "Works" on a hot dog means mustard, relish, and sauerkraut, for example, "New York" with Danny's version of onion sauce, and there's a dog for the mascot of each of Stratford's two public high schools. The Bulldog is topped with Kuhn's chili and grilled chopped onions, while the Devil dog is loaded with Kuhn's chili, cheddar sauce, jalapeno slices, chopped raw onion, and hickory smoked bacon.
A few years back I sat in my car, not very close to Stratford, and listened while a talk radio host - based in Manhattan, but from Philadelphia - went on for minutes about how much he loved Danny's. He would leave the highway on his way to or from elsewhere, and stop in my old hometown for the food I grew up eating. It was a landmark for him, too. Food is culture, and like all culture it spreads - branches reaching outward from its roots. I think if I told him Danny's was for sale he'd have the same question:
"Is it going to stay the same?"