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Feature Thu Aug 07 2008

Dreaming of Dairy Queen

There's something sort of delightfully hometown-y about Dairy Queen. In my experience, DQ's tend to be side of the road affairs, usually a shed or shack with two windows (dine out and drive thru), maybe a picnic table or two, and an interior eating area only in the fanciest of locations. Dairy Queen seems to be one of the most charmingly minor of the franchises dotting the modern American eating landscape. Maybe A&W Root Beer takes the ice cream cake for ultimate franchise frumpiness, but only by a sprinkle or two.


In my hometown, the Dairy Queen was nestled into the side of what seemed to be a housing development that never came to pass, steps from the municipal swimming pool, where a dusty asphalt road on the verge of becoming a cul de sac suddenly veered back into the larger thoroughfare marked by a graying yellow directional sign. Kids in saggy bathing suits with dirty flip-flop clad feet sprawled on the creaking picnic table on the side patio, nuzzling dipped cones, cracking the hard chocolate or butterscotch shell against their teeth and sucking out the liquid melting soft serve. Parents squinted behind sunglasses, minding the parry and thrust of the local swarm of hornets and making sure no one's ice cream when belly up into the baked summer dirt. Teenagers made awkward jokes about Dilly Bars, and grandmothers were never disappointed in their request for a chocolate soda -- just seltzer, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream with a cherry on top, thanks dear.

You know this scene. If not personally, through a hundred evocations of modern-day America on movie screens and television sets. I say modern America because there's something distinctly un-contemporary about Dairy Queen. Despite new advertising campaigns and renamed products (Mister Misty has now become an Arctic Rush? Is that made with Gatorade? Where's Mister Misty?!), Dairy Queen always seems delightfully old-fashioned, even downright resistant to the post-modern. Ice cream, the culinary shorthand for optimism, is hard to make truly ironic.

Yes, exotic flavors for ice cream exist from green tea and lemon basil to wasabi or bacon; and odd presentations tend to elevate frozen sweetened dairy to something other than a cold treat on a hot day. Soft serve ice cream, however, machine-produced and ever so gently chemically flavored, seems particularly unaffected by this trend. Especially at Dairy Queen, where the soft serve is always wonderfully the same, the desserts are always exceedingly honest, and even the pre-faded quasi-trendy DQ tshirts seem sweetly like they're trying too hard. So Dairy Queen remains, likely unintentionally, a bastion of hopeful modernity in an increasingly post-modern world. That scene on the picnic table could be today, or thirty years ago, or fifty years ago. It's not evocative of a time that never was -- it's a reminder of a time that always can be. DQ is modern in its hopeful sentimentality, clearly, if nothing else.

Visiting the new Dairy Queen on Damen Avenue, therefore, is a bit of a bizarre experience. The sidewalk-serving traditional front window is still there, and the ice cream is still good -- that sort of perfect, sweet, milky soft serve that's just the epitome of vanilla. And the fan favorites are still on the menu, from Buster Bars to my old standby, the cookie dough Blizzard. Those little nuggets of sugar sweetness and crumbly butter still crush to sand between my teeth and melt on my tongue, even after all these years. The line, well, clump of patrons on the sidewalk is the biggest waiting crowd on the entire block. And kids are everywhere -- I don't think I saw a single woman pass by who was not accompanying children, physically with child, or ... a jogger. Only a matter of time for the sporty ones.

But there's still something distinctly different about this Dairy Queen, a soon-to-be LEED certified green operation in what had been a burned out lot for the past decade. Just north of the Bebe and Nanette Lepore boutiques, just south of the Marc by Marc Jacobs, it even abuts a couture maternity-wear shop. The building is constructed from earth-friendly materials, enthusiastically described by a manager, though soy napkins and biodegradable Blizzard cups are still a ways off. And it shares its space with an Orange Julius, ice cream's faux-healthy smoothie cousin. Even without its high-end shopping neighbors and sustainable co-op type vibe, this DQ is still smack-dab in the middle of a major metropolitan center -- not tucked away in a suburban strip mall or visible just beyond the acoustical absorption walls along an interstate. Break after break with DQ tradition? Is this a new Dairy Queen for a new age?

It's tempting to think so. Until you place an order. "What's in the French Silk Blizzard?"

"That's chocolate ice cream, cocoa fudge, choco chunks, with whipped cream."

Cocoa fudge, choco chunks-- and the delivery was without a trace of irony, or false enthusiasm, or any faint behind-the-counter pessimism. The girl played it straight. And when the Blizzard came up to the counter, she tipped it upside down, with just a small smile, to display the concrete consistency of the still mostly-solid ice cream. Well, what do you know. It's still a real, modern Dairy Queen after all. Thank goodness.

Dairy Queen/Orange Julius
1649 N. Damen, 773-235-3800

 

Carl Giometti / August 8, 2008 2:47 PM

Way to combine a Drive Thru post with an Architecture post!!

TotallySweet / August 8, 2008 5:59 PM

I can't wait to go to DQ. Wholesome summer fun.

sbg / August 14, 2008 5:48 PM

I just about cried when I found out Mister Misty was killed by an Arctic Rush. Seriously. I grew up in the heartland, and have an intense fondness for the DQ. I put myself through college working for the Dairy Queen.

What I love best about it is that I cannot call it just Dairy Queen. It's THE Dairy Queen.

Gary / March 8, 2009 8:42 PM

I REALLY miss Orange Mister Mistys!

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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