Thrillist recently published a list of the best burgers in Illinois, and several local joints made the cut. Among C-U favorites like Farren’s and Black Dog was Ott’s Drive-In in Rantoul. Just a short drive north of Champaign, Ott’s is an innocuous, low roofed building with a handful of parking spots in front. When I walked in, I was excited by the set up: it was the exact stereotypical greasy spoon diner (not unlike Champaign’s Sam’s Café), which usually indicates tasty and delicious served with a healthy dose of unhealthy food and friendly service.
The interior is sort of cramped: there is a line of stools at a counter looking into the kitchen. The booth seating is from the 60s or 70s, clearly, and the slight tinge of yellow could very well be from years of grease and smoke. The seating is also stationary, which means you might have some trouble fitting in the booth if you’ve had a few too many hamburgers/beers/milkshakes over the years.
As we walked through the restaurant to find a table, it was clear that we were not regulars. Despite the odd look or two, we found our seats and were quickly visited by the waitress, a woman who patiently answered our questions about the menu. The menu is straightforward and everything is served a la carte. Breakfast is served all day, with classics like French toast ($4.25), two eggs, choice of meat and toast ($5.25), and Ott’s “famous” biscuits and sausage gravy ($4.00). Sandwiches include burgers ($3.00 - $4.25), grilled cheese ($2.75), Italian beef ($5.00), and tuna salad ($3.25). Onion rings ($3.25), hash browns ($2.25), French fries ($2.25), and breaded mushrooms ($3.50) are just a few sides available.
Since it was our first time (and also lunch), we ordered Thrillist’s suggested Ott’s burger (a half-pounder served on Texas toast; with cheese, $5.25), a double cheeseburger ($4.25), chicken strips ($5.25), French fries and mozzarella sticks ($3.50), and a couple of milkshakes ($3.50 each). It’s worth noting that Ott’s doesn’t waste time with multiple cheese options — cheese is just cheese (and in this case, American). Mozzarella sticks are served with a side of marinara, and chicken strips with your choice of honey mustard or barbeque.
The food arrived pretty quickly, and we began to cut and distribute. It was with great expectation that I lifted the eponymous ½ pound burger to my mouth and took a bite. The Texas toast held up pretty nicely considering the hefty meat, cheese, grilled onions (by request), ketchup, mustard, and pickles. The burger was juicy and tasty, and the cheese perfectly melted. I see you, Thrillist. I do indeed know how and why the Ott’s burger could have made a list of best burgers in Illinois — it was delicious!
The double cheeseburger, though, was my favorite, as I’m a super fan of thin griddle burgers. These patties were perfectly cooked, and the cheese was perfectly melty. The white bun was just the right weight and consistency to hold those meat patties together for mouth delivery. I think this burger was just as good as the Ott’s burger, and I’d be more than happy to eat either on a regular basis.
The fried things — chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, French fries—were fine. They weren’t particularly special; they were what I’d expect to find at a place like Ott’s. I will say, though, that the thicker cut fries served are my favorite shape, and with a dosing of salt, were the perfect accompaniment for the burgers.
The milkshakes, on the other hand, might be even better than the burgers. I ordered a “cherry” milkshake, which means I ordered a vanilla milkshake with some maraschino cherry liquid mixed in. It was served in the big stainless steel milkshake mixing cup, spoon and straw stuck straight in. It was thick and creamy and totally delicious. If I had less self-control, I’d have ordered another.
At the end of our meal, owner Doug came over to our table to see how things were (was it the big camera that gave us away?). He told us that his father opened the restaurant in 1962 as a daytime diner. It’s been open ever since (that’s 53 years!), and despite a brief flirtation with the idea of shutting down in 1999, Doug and his son continue to run the restaurant with no intention of shutting down.
The sign out front reads “Ott’s: Where Friends Meet,” and it must be true. Perhaps I’m romantic or idealistic, but Ott’s totally seems like the place you’d go to meet your friend on a Saturday morning (or a Tuesday morning in retirement). It’s also the type of place where you know people have their booths or their stools and their waitress. At least that’s how I see it in my imagination. I guess I’ll just have to go back and find out.
Ott’s Drive-In is located at 400 North Century Boulevard in Rantoul, and is open Tuesday through Friday 6 a.m.-3 p.m., and Saturday, 6 a.m.-1 p.m. Ott’s takes cash or check only.
Photos by Justine Bursoni.