Yesterday I went to Rawley's in Fairfield, Connecticut after hearing all kinds of praise for the place's hot dogs over the last several months. Here is my assessment:
From an ambience point of view, Rawley's is definitely a memorable experience. It exudes all the sensory details that one might expect to be present at a place where great hot dogs are served. Architecturally, it is truly decrepit. A real dive. The kind of place from which diners emerge with grease stains on their clothing. The wooden walls of this roadside drive-in (which, I might add, was positively overflowing with locals--ordinarily a very promising circumstance) are almost entirely covered with past patrons' carved initials. And there are handwritten signs in a few prominently visible locations that advise the clientele that "this is not a fast food restaurant." In the text of these signs, the word "fast" is underlined. Now, I happen to work as a copy editor. Upon first reading one such sign, I interpreted it to mean that Rawley's is not a fast-food restaurant, i.e., a restaurant that serves fast food. I just figured that whoever wrote it quite understandably neglected to insert a hyphen between "fast" and "food," which I imagine would have been more correct on a technical level. But the sign's meaning was abundantly obvious even without the hyphen. Taken literally, though, the sign means that Rawley's is a "food restaurant" that happens not to be fast. And as I said, "fast" was underlined. So an alternate interpretation of the statement would be, "[Rawley's] is not a FAST...restaurant." Oh, the prophecy of those words!
My order consisted of one hot dog with the works and one large soda. By the time I placed my order, a good portion of the crowd had thinned out and there were about nine people left, which still seemed crowded, given the small size of the establishment. But there could not have been all that much cooking going on. Anyway, I received my order more than twenty minutes after placing it. Now, I don't care how legendary the food at Rawley's is; twenty minutes for a single frankfurter (when table service is not involved) is not cool, man. In fact, it is just plain not acceptable! The counter service was friendly enough, but there was a highly memorable moment during which the cook (an older guy who appears in various wall photographs and whose name I do not recall) turned to the patrons and announced that Rawley's is not a fast food restaurant, thereby reminding everyone of the mantra emblazoned on the above-described signs. The announcement brought a chorus of assorted jeers from the locals, who appeared to have gone through this ritual many times before. I had to laugh at the irony of the cook's words, given that I had asked for my single hot dog almost a half-hour earlier. If someone had handed me a raw frankfurter and a magnifying glass I probably could have prepared my order faster in the parking lot, using the sunlight as a source of heat.
As for the hot dog itself, it was extremely good and solid. For the Chowhound poster who regularly inquires about the brand of hot dog used, Rawley's uses Roessler's yellow-label frankfurters. As for their preparation, I believe they are primarily deep-fried and then grilled for a minute-or-so. That is basically what I was able to observe from where I was standing. "The works," which came at a reasonable price of $2.30, consisted of mustard, ketchup, sauerkraut, relish, and chopped bacon. All of these were very fresh and tasty. But with all due respect to Martha Stewart (who is perhaps the most prominent of Rawley's celebrity proponents), the hot dog was nothing more than extremely good. How anyone would choose this place over Super Duper Weenie, which is less than five minutes away by car, I don't know. I wound up going to the latter establishment and getting two New Englanders, made by Gary Zemola himself. In about seven minutes, I might add.
Of course, the net result of all this is that I'm now about 0.017 percent closer to complete coronary-artery blockage. Which, at least in the case of SDW's New Englander, is quite worth it. Not so, unfortunately, for the hot dogs at Rawley's.