The Original Rockford Nostalgic Website
Courtesy of Bob Anderson
Out of all of the restaurants that I have researched over the years I have found the Alps Drive In to be most challenging. Through my research I have discovered one thing about this popular and longtime staple of the East State Street and Alpine Road intersection operating since at least 1938. What I found was that the restaurant was always up for sale and changed hands frequently! The Alps became famous for their Waffle Fries, along with the usual drive in fare of hamburgers and cheeseburgers, hot dogs, barbecue’s malted milks and other dairy treats. 1950 would be their last year at this location before the building was moved to a new location.
Courtesy of Bob Anderson
Close up view of the Alps Drive In at East State and Alpine
In 1951 the Alps Drive In building was moved and would open in a new location at 4006 Charles Street in the Five Points area as shown in this aerial view with the Alps being located at left. It would remain in business in this location as a summertime favorite until the early 1970’s when the restaurant was sold one final time and razed. It would soon be replaced by a Burger King restaurant.
Rockette Drive In
The Rock-Ette Drive In was located at 1512 Nelson Boulevard at 15th Avenue at the east end of the Nelson Bridge, which today is known as the 15th Avenue Bridge. The eatery was opened in July 1940 by Eddie Funk. During his ownership the restaurant would close during the winter months. The restaurant quickly gained popularity with nearby industrial workers and passing, motorists. Since it was located opposite Blackhawk Park, it became a favorite for people to stop and get some items and take them to the park for a picnic.
In April 1944 the Rock-Ette had new owners, G. H. Loveland who had been in the garage and automobile business for years and his son Jack, a 1942 graduate of West high school. The restaurant offered car service and indoor dining in the small inside eating area and served sandwiches, plate lunches and fountain drinks and sundaes, with Barbecued beef sandwiches being their specialty. Alice Loveland soon joined her husband and son in the business and soon they started serving pancakes and sausage and homemade chili, fried chicken and fish.
Photo courtesy of Billy Pappas.
In 1947 Alice Loveland took over ownership but would soon sell it to Albert Garrison and Irene Picavet. Irene would marry Carroll "Butch" Stenwall and sell the restaurant to Stenwall and Tassius Pappas in 1952. Stenwall would sell his share of the business to Tassius in 1960 to pursue a new venture. Tassius Pappas would continue to operate the Rockette until its closing in 1973. * Picture and help verifying facts courtesy of Billy Pappas
Photo courtesy of Billy Pappas.
Fred Singer Jr.(Sonny) looking sharp hanging around the jukebox at the Rockette Drive In at the east end of the Nelson Bridge (15th Avenue) opposite Blackhawk Park in the 1950’s. Tassius was part owner of the Rockette at the time.
Dog n Suds Drive In
Dog N Suds Drive-In was founded in Champaign, Illinois by school teachers James Griggs and Don Hamacher in 1953. The chain soon became famous for "The World's Creamiest Root Beer" served in frosted glass mugs, Coney Dogs and Texas Burgers - a double decker burger with a secret sauce, served in the comfort of your car, and the chain expanded rapidly. It was not long before the first franchised Dog n Suds Drive In location in Rockford was opened by Carroll “Butch” Stenwall and his wife Irene at 4309 West State Street on July 27, 1956. At the time Stenwall was also part owner of the Rockette Drive In but sold his interest in that business in 1960.
A second Dog n Suds location would open on May 21, 1961 at 2404 South Alpine Road owned by Stenwall and Donald Pearson. This location also featured a limited inside seating area along with the drive in portion. In 1969 Stenwall would sell his half interest in the South Alpine Road location to Stanley Idzikowski who became partners with Pearson, but retained ownership of the West State Street location. In 1973 Idzikowski would sell his half interest in the Alpine Road location to Jeff Cohen. Also in 1973 a third location would open up at 1421 Harlem Road owned by Donald Dahnke. The Stenwall’s would make thier son, Bradley Stenwall a partner of the West State Street location in 1976.
A signboard from the Dog n' Suds Drive In that was located at 2404 South Alpine Road. These were used in conjunction with the Order-Matic speaker system to place your order and have your tray picked up after your meal. Click on menu above for an expanded view.
Courtesy Cyndy Bokker Marcello
The once popular drive in restaurants that featured carhop service were very common in the 1950’s and 1960’s and at one time numbered about 850 locations across the Midwest. Facing increased competition from fast food restaurants and a changing American lifestyle, the Stenwall’s dropped their affiliation with the Dog n Suds chain and renamed the restaurant to the Burger Basket in 1980. It changed owners several times and in 1999 the current owner, John Conforti took over ownership. It has since expanded into a sit down restaurant named Mr. C's Family Restaurant and still offers few items off the old Dog n Suds menu. Pearson and Cohen made the decision to close the South Alpine Dog n Suds in 1983. The location later became the now demolished Lucky Garden Chinese Restaurant. The Harlem Road location changed hands several times and operated as a summer only establishment, but it has since closed. Another dine in style Dog n Suds opened in the former McDonald’s Restaurant building at 3137 North Main Street in the early 2000’s but was a short lived venture.
A. H. "Gus" Belt ran a combination gas station and chicken restaurant on Highway 51 with his wife, Edith in Normal, Illinois. Gus would take care of the cars while Edith dished up the food. During the Depression business was not good and he converted the gas station and chicken restaurant into a hamburger stand in February 1934. Belt's practice of grinding the beef that he used in his Steakburgers in the public area of his restaurant right in the sight of the customers led to the slogan "In Sight It Must Be Right". The hamburger stand became a success and Gus started opening more hamburger stands in nearby areas.
Gus would soon start franchising his Steak & Shake restaurants, now known for its Steakburgers, French fries, genuine chili, oven baked beans, fountain drinks and pastries. The restaurants constructed entirely of glistening white porcelain enamel and stainless steel would come to Rockford when franchise owner Ray M. Smith opened the thirty third unit of the chain at 1803 Kishwaukee Street on June 19, 1952.
Smith would open his second Steak & Shake location at 4615 North Second Street at the ‘point’ with Forest Hills Road on April 29, 1954. Like the other restaurants in the chain they offered four way service; curb service, counter service, dining room service and Takhomasak. In August 1954 Gus Belt passed away at age 56. The chain continued to be operated by his wife Edith until 1969 when she sold the company.
The Loves Park Steak & Shake location would close its doors in 1967 but the Rockford location was expanded and remodeled the same year. The Rockford location closed in 1973. Rockford would go without a Steak & Shake until April 1997 when a Steak & Shake opened at 7561 East State Street as a dine in restaurant with a drive thru. Another location opened in Machesney Park in March 2004 at 1568 West Lane Road.
The Top Hat Drive In / Restaurant
The first Top Hat Drive In was opened in 1940 at 2601 East State Street on the south side of the street across from Robert Avenue by Merle Bergsten. The roadside stand offered jumbo malt’s, southern fried steakburgers and home-made ice cream served to customers in their automobiles. The home-made ice cream was also sold for home consumption.
Top Hat Number 2 was opened July 12, 1941 by Merle Bergsten, with assistance from A. C. Elliott, as a hamburger and root beer stand with curb service at 5211 North Second Street, several years before Loves Park incorporated as a city. The building was identical to the Rockford location. Merle would continue to manage the East State location, while his wife Wilma, who he married in February 1941, managed the North Second Street location. Along with curb service at the North Second location they would add inside service two years later that included an expanded menu and the restaurant soon became well known for their fried chicken, T- bone steaks, baked Virginia ham and homemade pies and the home-made ice cream, along with the usual drive in fare. The Rockford location would soon change hands, but continued under the Top Hat name until 1946. There was another short lived limited menu location of the Top Hat at North Second and Forest Hills Road that was in business during the summer of 1949 and 1950 at an intersection that was much different than the intersection as we know it today.
In 1956 they would build a new drive in restaurant a block north of the former location at 5335 North Second Street. The new restaurant still offered inside dining, along with many new amenities for the drive in section such outside phones where diners would call in their order to a switchboard inside the restaurant. They also offered “music in your car.” Around this time Bergsten started in the catering business. They continued the drive in until 1962 when they switched formats from car hops to drive in customers ordering at a walk up window, and in 1965 quit the outside service completely and turned their focus to running a family type inside dining restaurant, and eventually became a buffet style restaurant. The Top Hat became a popular gathering spot for family get-togethers, meetings, banquets, graduation parties, celebrations and wedding rehearsals and anniversaries, etc.
In 1965 an addition was added on to the north side of the restaurant that was identical to the original portion of the 1956 restaurant. The expansion added an additional 3,000 square feet of floor space. The new area was primarily used for private parties and meetings and used sliding doors which could convert the one large room into two smaller rooms. Again in 1972 the facility was expanded by 2,100 square feet to better handle the growing catering business.
The Top Hat was a true family endeavor. Merle's son, Merle "Hap" Bergsten, began working at the restaurant when he was 11 eventually taking over the business from his father, and operating it for decades. Over the years many family members would work there, from young to old, along with many loyal dedicated employees. In March 1994 “Hap” Bergsten would sell the restaurant to the Jury family, and while he no longer owned it he continued to operate the restaurant for the Jury family because of his extensive knowledge and experience in the business. The Jury’s remodeled the interior of the restaurant, and replaced the awnings, but did not change the Top Hats cuisine or family owned atmosphere which was becoming rare at that time as compared to the national chain restaurants.
The Top Hat Restaurant, a nearly sixty year fixture along North Second Street closed on April 6, 2001 for the very last time. The buffet restaurant had been struggling for a while, and they considered obtaining a liquor license and changing the style of the restaurant, but in the end decided against it. In 2003 a proposal was made to turn the former Top Hat building into a new eatery and entertainment complex including a blues museum, but that also never became a reality. The building was demolished on February 21, 2006 and a small strip mall was built on the property.
The cover of a original Top Hat Drive In menu from the 1940's courtesy of Merle "Hap" Bergsten and Keith Watson
5 Points Drive Inn
In 1949 A. V. Monaco and Vincent I. Verace opened one of the city’s first drive in restaurants at 4132 Broadway at the intersection of Alpine, Charles and Newburg Roads called the Five points Drive In. This popular restaurant was sold to Joe Engebretson in 1957 and became the second location in the then expanding Hollywood restaurant chain.
Hollywood Drive Ins and Dining Centers
Hollywood Drive In was opened in 1952 at 2042 North Second Street by Carl Boraiko just north of the Auburn Street Bridge. One of the first drive ins in the area to offer electronic ordering where the customer would drive up to a two way microphone and place their order They also differed from most drive in’s at the time as they had no curb service, no tipping and no waiting, the location offered carry out service to eat in your car or take it to go. In 1954 Boraiko would sell the restaurant to Joe Engebretson. Engebretson came to Rockford in 1947 after leaving a job as manager of a restaurant owned by W. T. Grant in Chicago and purchased the Tuckwood Restaurant at 427 West State across from the courthouse. He also owned the Times Restaurant 224 North Main Street for a while around 1949. Since the name ‘Hollywood’ was already on the building, Engebretson decided to leave the name in place but expanded on the name. Boraiko would later go on to start the Green Shutters drive in, Skeet’s drive in and Beef a Roo.
Engebretson would bring back curb service to the restaurant where the carhops wore black slacks and white blouses and hooked trays filled with food onto partially rolled up car windows. When customers were finished, they flashed the headlights on their cars to signal it was tray pick up time.
In April 1956 he would move to a new location at 5020 North Second Street across from the Woodward-Governor plant. In April 1957 he would purchase the Five Points Drive In at 4132 Broadway and opened it as the second Hollywood Drive In location. A third location was added in 1959 at 3605 Auburn Street. On the menu were such items as Rockford’s first double-decker hamburger, the Hi-Boy on a sesame seed bun with shredded lettuce and cheese and their own special sauce that Engebretson introduced at his Tuckwood restaurant in the 1950’s under a different name. New names were given to some of the sandwiches to follow the Hollywood theme - The Producer, which was beef and Swiss cheese on an Italian bun, the Director which was a ham and Swiss sandwich and the Oscar, a quarter pound hamburger on a jumbo bun with lettuce, tomato, a fresh slice of onion and pickle. Of course they still offered their famous Golden Skillet Fried Chicken and strawberry pie.
Hector the Director, a wooden character topped the outside of the eateries for years. During facelifts on the buildings, the signs were discarded or given away. The last known one adorned the front of Ekstrom’s Confectionery, 628 Seventh Street, but that too is now gone.
In 1966 the chain would open up an ultra-modern ding center that consisted of a drive in, coffee shop and take out restaurant at 1710 South Alpine Road at Charles Street, the first of six dining centers. In its first year it served over 250,000 customers. A similar dining center concept soon followed at 5305 North Second Street in 1968 and at 3300 Eleventh Street in 1972.
Hollywood Drive In, 1710 South Alpine Road as pictured in 1971. Dining Room pictured above and the Carry Out and Drive In as pictured below.
The North Second Street location had rocks placed on the roof of the building, and many people were curious as to what it signified, Joe Engebretson when questioned about the rocks on the roof replied that it was just part of the architects design and nothing more.
Under Engebreston’s leadership the chain rapidly expanded in Rockford and the state line area during the 1960’s and 1970’s, starting with a location at 2717 North Main Street in 1961, 815 Marchesano Drive in 1962, and by 1964 locations in Beloit, Wisconsin and Dekalb, Illinois were added. They also operated restaurants at two Weise Department store locations, Colonial Village and North Town Malls. Their office and warehouse was located at 3022 Wallin Avenue and for a time they owned Peters Packing Company, 3103 Auburn Street to supply meat not only to their restaurants, but distributed it to other institutions and to the public as well.
In 1977 the Stenstrom Construction Company who built the majority of the Hollywood Dining Centers, would build a 21,000 square foot roller skating rink at 3209 North Main Street behind Skakey’s Pizza and the Hollywood Dining Center. Although Stenstrom owned the rink the Hollywood Restaurant chain would purchase the naming rights and it became The Tree Hollywood Skate Center.
Due to changing times eventually the chain would discontinue the drive in concept and focus on indoor dining geared toward family dining and still offered carry out service as well. It started when Joe Engebretson demolished his drive in at 3605 Auburn Street in 1972 and would replace it with another restaurant ~ only this time it was not part of the Hollywood chain, instead he built the building and leased it to the Bonanza Sirloin Pit chain. At its heyday in the 1970’s the Hollywood chain now consisting of company owned and franchised units in Illinois and Wisconsin numbered fourteen units with seven in the Rockford area including locations outside of the Rockford region such as Dekalb, Freeport, Beloit, Janesville and Portage.
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