The culinary spirit of the 1950s lives on in downtown Irving, where an old-fashioned soda fountain still chugs along serving patty melts and chocolate malts. Big State Fountain Grill has been around for nearly seventy years, opening as a drug store in 1948. The lunch counter from those early days has blossomed into a great diner, under the care of two Irving locals who grew up as customers.
Rick and Susan Fairless, who also run the motorcycle shop Strokers, bought Big State a few years ago when they heard it was closing. “It was an impulse buy from the heart,” Susan says, “not by the brain.” She laughs that it was “probably a dumb thing to do,” but the couple had too many fond memories of the place to let it shut its doors.
Susan, a fifth-generation Irvingite, recalls that “Rick and I used to go there for lunch once a week, or sometimes twice a week. It was very small. There were only two people that worked there.”
The pharmacy business was central in the 1950s, with the lunch counter and soda fountain on the side. “My grandma used to take my brother and me to get her prescriptions, and then she’d let us get lunch," Rick Fairless remembers. His regular order: “A grilled cheese sandwich with French fries and a vanilla shake.” All three items are still on the menu.
Now the space is decorated with the usual old-timey paraphernalia, but at Big State, they’ve earned the right to it. The newspaper headlines about JFK’s assassination? The soda fountain was open back then, in the same space. A lot of the decor has been donated by old customers, and the Irving city government provided period photos of the town. “The booths,” Rick Fairless adds, “are refurbished booths that were there in the fifties.” He’s proud of the Wurlitzer juke box, too.
Big State’s diner food is darn good, especially anything involving a griddle or a fryer. The patty melt on rye is done textbook-right, and the burgers are even better: thin, well-seasoned meat with a good sear. I ordered the Blues Brothers, topped with generous portions of blue cheese and bacon, and tore into it the way Jake Blues would have.
Those sides, though. Big State are wizards of tater tots and onion rings, preferring crispy thick batters on each. The tots are compulsively salty and the onion rings, for all their bubbly golden batter, are fried perfectly. And the portions are generous; in an age where hipster burger bars serve up four onion rings and call it a side dish, Big State still believes that more is more.
The milkshakes are just as old-fashioned. One of the two mixing machines used to make shakes and malts is over twenty years old. The other, according to my waitress, “says it was made in the 1970s, but it makes a funny noise, so we don’t use it as much.” This prompted a comment from another customer: “We all make funny noises when we get that old.”
The gift shop in front can seem cheesy: Greeting cards, gag gifts, Beanie Babies. But Rick Fairless is proud of its 1950s candy collection. “If it’s at 7-Eleven,” he says, “we don’t want it. The number one seller is candy cigarettes. They’re packaged like cigarettes and even though it’s not politically correct, we sell a lot of them.”
Big State Fountain will soon be celebrating its seventieth birthday. It’s seen a lot of changes over the last few years: When the Fairless family bought it, the pharmacy business was losing money, so they expanded the grill and added a gift shop. A lot of ancient kitchen equipment needed replacing, as did the floors. But the diner is turning a profit, under the management of Chelsey Fairless, who brings the family business into a new generation.
Will younger diners feel the same warm nostalgia as our parents’ generation? I don’t know. But as powerful of a time capsule as Big State Fountain is, onion rings and tater tots this perfect can live forever.
Big State Fountain Grill, 100 E. Irving Blvd., Irving.