Dairy Inn is a piece of Pinellas history. Originally opened in April of 1947 as a Dairy Queen, it gained independence and the current name no less than 36 years ago. Multiple generations of Bay area residents have sampled the soft-serve ice cream, homemade root beer and tasty burgers. Current owner Brian Hummer used to eat the food when he was a teenager. He's 45 years old now.
Hummer took over from the Nicholson family — Dairy Inn's owners since 1970 — just two-and-a-half years ago. When I asked him what he had changed, or what he was planning on changing, he said that there wasn't much on his agenda: "I don't want to mess with memories."
Even though there's no indoor seating, and a menu loaded with burgers and fries with nothing costing more than $4, don't think of Dairy Inn as a fast food joint. It isn't. One reason is that the food often takes a surprising amount of time to come out of the kitchen (I call ahead). Another is that a lot of Dairy Inn's food is made in-house — like burger patties, soups and chili, and the famous root beer available by the quart.
There's more to it than that, though.
Dairy Inn is that tiny ring in the culinary evolutionary chain that links diner food with McDonald's. Places like this are the genetic ancestors of the multibillion-dollar obesity and diabetes industry we call fast food. Ray Croc's first restaurant? Probably a lot like this place.
Thankfully, it's easy to see that Dairy Inn owes more to the classic diner food than its super-sized descendants. Easy to see, because there are full-color pictures (á la a Chinese take-out joint) of every item on the menu. Pick beef, chicken or pork, and they'll fry or griddle it, cover it in cheese and serve it on soft hamburger buns or chewy hoagie rolls.
Of course, burgers ($3.49) are a popular choice. These patties are almost as thin as a factory burger, but there is that ragged edge and slightly variable texture that suggests human hands were recently involved. With crisp lettuce, ripe tomatoes and a surfeit of Heinz ketchup, it's a burger to be reckoned with, vastly better than even the best chain offering.
Cubans ($3.99) are perfectly acceptable, all the right ingredients piled and pressed 'til crunchy, served with black beans that are one of Hummer's new additions. The beans are not that flavorful, but they play second fiddle to the immense amount of mild smoked sausage packed amongst the tender little legumes.
Dairy Inn's homemade chili ($1.99) has Midwest and Coney Island origins — it's more sauce than chunky meat dish. Packed full of finely ground beef and tomatoey goodness, it's perfect for topping one of those burgers or a few hot dogs ($.99 for two, $1.79 for three). Even better, the counter girls will slather it on tater tots and melt some cheese on top ($2.29). Fries ($1.56) are more hit or miss — sometimes the shoestrings are overcooked and under-salted, sometimes they're good. Stick with those damn fine tots.
The counter girls provide that endearing combination of efficient and polite service punctuated by bouts of teenage disdain that reminds me of my school days. Then, I might have wanted a date, or even just a little conversation form these ladies. Now, all I want is the chili that was left off my order. I get it, after one young lady gets off the phone and the other leisurely finishes a conversation with someone in the kitchen.
Don't take that as a criticism. This kind of service is all part of the old-timey mystique. You find the same girls taking orders at clam shacks on the Cape or taco stands in San Diego, with the same attitude. It's endearing.
In keeping with the Dairy Inn's culinary theme, the ham on a ham-and-cheese sandwich ($3.84) is slapped on the grill until sections of the sweet meat are caramelized and crunchy, then slices of provolone are melted into the meat. Steak or chicken cheesesteaks ($3.84) are stuffed full of meat and perfectly acceptable. If I have one complaint? All that fried meat but no bologna?
Fried fish and fried chicken are crunchy, and almost indistinguishable. Get enough golden oily batter, veggies and mayo and it's hard to tell the difference between bland chicken and mild fish. Still, that crunch is worth the $3.84.
Of course, there's the dairy aspect of Dairy Inn. In keeping with its Dairy Queen roots, the ice cream is soft-serve chocolate and vanilla, either corkscrewed into cup or cone, or mixed into any number of sundaes, shakes or blended concoctions. I'm not into all that fancy stuff, though, especially when it comes to soft-serve. I'll take chocolate in a cone. Or, if I'm in the mood to whoop ass on the Ms. Pac-Man machine stationed in the converted garage behind Dairy Inn — look for BRR on the high score list — I'll have it served in a cup to free my hands.
There aren't many places like this left. For almost 50 years, Dairy Inn has sold real food made fresh by human hands and served at extremely reasonable prices. According to Hummer, it's a great social equalizer that provides people the ability to treat themselves, even if they don't have a lot of money. "For generations, you could go to the beach with your family, then have a precious little moment at the Dairy Inn," he says. "And you could afford to do it."
Sounds like he's going to keep it that way. I'll be taking my son there for a $2 dog-and-cone lunch for years to come.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Creative Loafing food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.