In some ways, I can’t even begin to write about Yesterdog, because it’s such a major part of my upbringing. This little hot dog joint has been around since my dad was younger, so he and my aunts and uncle and grandmother remember going there long before I was born. Yesterdog is one of those decades-old institutions that every city brags on, where regulars flock regardless of how good the food really is. Oftentimes, the less complicated the food, the more people love it. Hot dogs are probably one of the least complicated of American staples, so any visit to a hot dog joint is easily justified by, “Let’s go for lunch” or “Let’s go out with the family” or “Where do we eat at 1 am?” Under that guise I’ve eaten at Yesterdog countless times: parties and family occasions growing up, late night college runs, and now nostalgic visits when we’re home.
Yesterdog is a centerpiece of Grand Rapids’ Eastown district, a budding little neighborhood with brick streets, big murals, and an eclectic mix of shops and bookstores and restaurants (including a very good breakfast at Wolfgang’s). The main entrance is a barely-visible screen door, with your first sign warning you that they are a cash (and oddly, check) only business. Seriously, don’t even ask about using a debit card.
The entryway leads into a long, crammed space facing the “kitchen.” If you’re a regular, you know to shuffle in and wait until the next employee starts taking orders. If you’re a newbie, it can be a little intimidating, because it’s typically packed and people are yelling at you. Some tips on your first visit:
1. Line up to the left if you haven’t ordered. Line up to the right if you have.
2. They’ll start with hot dogs, then do drinks and chips. Don’t even try to customize your dogs. Just order from the menu. Seriously, there are only five hotdogs. Odds are, you’ll find one you like. (Hint: they’re all good.)
3. After they’ve taken all the orders, they’ll collect payment. Remember, cash or check only. Marvel at the employees adding up your order in their heads (I’ve never seen them get it wrong), and then they’ll ring you up at the old cash register complete with real “cha-ching” sound.
While you wait, see if you can sink some coins in the tip jar (upper right corner, above). You can begin taking in all the retro decorations and passive-aggressive signage. The small space is crammed full of them.
5. Remember your order. They make giant trays of hot dogs all at once and bring them to the counter to divvy up into orders. They’ll ask you what you had, so don’t forget.
Then take your tray laden with hot dogs (be careful not to spill your drinks – I speak from experience) and find a seat in the restaurant. Take time to absorb all of the old signs. There are multiple boards filled with photos of customers who got their pictures taken around the world or with famous people while wearing their Yesterdog T-shirts.
The service may be a little surly at times, but that’s part of the experience. If you’re concerned about absolute cleanliness or about being treated like a king while you order hot dogs, you’re in the wrong place. It’s a hot dog joint, for goodness sakes.
One of the restrooms.
The Yesterdog space hasn’t changed much over time. It boasts big wooden floors, sweeping from the front of the store to the back.
Lots of signs. Old booths. Tin ceiling.
The booths have been carved up with initials and messages over the years. It didn’t used to be like this when I was younger, but over time it started and couldn’t be stopped. I saw an interview with the owner in which he said they once tried painting and fixing the carvings up, only to have it happen again. Given that the restaurant is run by a small crew and open late into the night, it just wasn’t worth their effort to constantly repaint all of the booths. Too bad, I guess, although it adds some of the “charming” rough-around-the-edges feel.
The hot dogs themselves are boiled and the buns are steamed. The menu includes five items:
Yesterdog: chili, pickles, onion, ketchup, & mustard
Cheddardog: chili & cheese
Veggiedog: cheese, sauerkraut, onion, pickles, ketchup, & mustard
Krautdog: sauerkraut, ketchup, & mustard
Ultradog: chili, cheese, onion, pickles, ketchup, mustard
As you can see: simplicity. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that their ingredients all come from Gordon Food Service. Nor would that stop me from visiting. Aside from the hometown comfort factor, I love these hot dogs because they’re soft and the ingredients are generously piled on. The chili has a little bite to it, the kraut is sour enough, and I love the texture of shredded dill pickles. It’s impossible NOT to make a mess of yourself when eating these (there are stacks of napkins on every table). I typically order a handful of Ultradogs, and they are always, always good. Time of day, time of year, company, occasion, doesn’t matter. I’ll always eat more of these.
Speaking of which, if anyone from Grand Rapids is headed through Ohio soon, let me know…
If you want to visit:
1505 Wealthy St. SE (map it!)
Grand Rapids, MI 49506
Also on Facebook and @Yesterdog1505
Open Mon-Sat, 10:30a-2:30a; Sun, 10:30a-9p