Yes, the 2Toots Train Whistle Grill has a train.
It's a black, electric Lionel locomotive that chugs along the lunch counter and pulls "boxcar" diner baskets from the kitchen to your booth in the '50s-themed dining room. It's a great show, kids love it. It's a wonder most have managed to resist the temptation to reach out and play conductor as the engine speeds by.
There's another wonder named Champion the Wonder Horse, a classic, old coin-operated ride that let's your kids simulate riding hard across Laredo in hot pursuit of Black Bart. In an age where every other six-year-old has his nose buried in a PSP handheld, it's a comfort watching kids beg their parents for just one more quarter to ride.
There's all sorts of theme-appropriate, if not somewhat uninspired, diner- and train-related paraphernalia, reproductions of vintage Santa Fe travel posters and a television that plays an endless loop of Thomas the Tank Engine videos. The restaurant itself is located opposite the Main Street Station on the BNSF train line so the constant rumble of commuter trains adds an appropriate touch.
It's all great fun, and if that's all 2Toots had to offer you would likely visit once or twice until the novelty had worn off and then pack the kids into the minivan for another family diner at the Golden Corral.
But what makes 2Toots unique isn't the train. It's the food. Simply put, 2Toots features one of the best hamburgers in the western suburbs.
Ask 10 people what makes a burger great and you'll get eight answers (I'm accounting for the two that are likely to be vegetarians). It's a great debate because what makes a burger amazing depends more upon the person you ask than the beef or the bun.
Some people like them a mile wide with a patty thicker than a tractor tire, piled high with every conceivable savory topping from duck confit to Bandage-Wrapped Raw-Milk California Cheddar. It's all about the trendy artisan condiments and specialty beef like Kobe or organic. Chances are your favorite steak house is selling more burgers in this economy then they are filet.
But they won't sell one better than 2Toots.
It's old school and its a beauty, with a patty that's hand-formed and pressed flat on the grill and cooked until it has that irresistible, delicate crispness around the edges, a crispiness I crave so badly I've tried to duplicate it at home with a panini press to no avail.
Topped simply with fresh lettuce, tomato and pickle sitting atop a buttery toasted bun, it's a perfect version of an American diner classic. No need for braised pork cheek or Salmon Roe on this burger, it does just fine on its own.
The Double Stack (why eat one when you can eat two??) is almost impossible to pick up and harder to put down, the heat from the patties melting the cheese into a wonderfully gooey mouthful. Only a burger this good can make watching Thomas the Tank Engine tolerable.
Everything else on the smallish menu is incredibly fresh and obviously homemade, and there again is the biggest difference between 2Toots and other family focused diner-styled restaurants.
Considering the kitsch decor and the novelty of the train chugging around the lunch counter, the food here is so much better than it has to be. There's a meaty chili with hints of smoky paprika and a light, fresh-tasting tuna or egg salad sandwich on multi-grain bread.
The hot dogs are what you'd expect but the Spring Garden Salad is not. It's refreshing and crisp, with grape tomatoes, Mandarin oranges, red onion and pine nuts. That's right, pine nuts. Try finding those on the menu at that famous burger joint. Plus, you don't have to deal with a hostile waitress at 2Toots.
Most entrees are served with fries and they're fine, but better when some of the meat and cheese mix from your Double Stack falls into them, creating a kind of meaty 'cheese fries' side dish to savor when your burger is gone. Yum.
You have options for dessert. The milk shakes and malts are thick. Served in a malt cup and topped with real whipped cream, they're big enough to share. I've never been a huge fan of Rice Krispy treats, but 2Toots has them for only $1.25 and they're as big as a brick. My kids love them.
Brownies and cupcakes round out the treat options. The latter are homemade and served with a plastic train whistle perched on the frosting which my kids will proceed to blow incessantly until I 'put them away' while they're sleeping--and conveniently forget where.
Service is friendly. I'm always impressed that the teenage kids working behind the counter are not your typical brooding "my-parents-told-me-I-needed-to-get-a-job-so-whatever" kids you see working in retail, but rather genuinely like the kiddie clientèle and never scowl over a special request.
If you're looking for a family friendly diner spot where you won't cringe every time your child raises his voice above a whisper, 2Toots is a great choice. Looking for one of the best burgers in the western suburbs? Same choice.
Where: 2Toots Steam Whistle Grill, 950 Warren Ave., Downers Grove 630-729-0235
Mon - Fri 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Sat - Sun 11 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
How Much: Not much. All kids meals are under $5, the Double Stack Burger tops the scale at $6.95.
Kid Friendly: Um, yea.
Where can I park the minivan? There 's limited parking out front and a free parking garage just across the tracks to the south.
What about birthday parties? Sure, just be certain to call in advance. 2 Toots does not offer a birthday party package but they're flexible with large groups.
Do they have a web site with a downloadable menu? Yup. www.2toots.com/index.php
Can my kid touch the train? No.
How many of those plastic train whistles have you hidden? Dozens, and I swear they're breeding. I keep finding them under everything.
Make it a night. After dinner, stroll a few storefronts down to Every Day's a Sundae for one of the 40 different scoops of Sherman's Ice Cream. Sit outside and gossip with the neighbors as the kids watch the trains pass by. Perfect.