I have an assignment for you, and it’s a tasty one. Next time you have a couple of hours free, and are looking to enjoy not only a good ice cream cone but a taste of vintage Americana, get on Route 30 and head west. When you reach the Dairy Joy Drive-In, order yourself some soft serve ice cream, maybe a sandwich and fries, too. And then ask to speak to the owners, and tell them you are glad places like theirs still exist in the world.
My family and I drove out to the small farming town of Hinckley last weekend for the latest installment of the Ice Cream Diaries. As soon as I had heard the name Dairy Joy – in an Aurora-area visitor’s guide, I believe – I knew it had to be on the list.
Hinckley is about 15 miles west of Aurora, so it took us a bit of time to get there from Geneva, but it did not disappoint. Dairy Joy has been around since 1957, but the current owners Wyn and Jan Wahlgren have owned it for 19 years.
The building does indeed look like it was pulled straight out of a 1950s Coca-Cola magazine advertisement. You can order at the walk-up window, or you can head inside and order at a window there. Indoors, there are about a dozen booths, and four more tables on a shady patio out back. I spotted at least one high chair.
The restaurant backs up to a set of train tracks, so if your kids like to watch freight trains from up close, this is a great place to do it. My daughter was at first a bit spooked by the “choo-choo” coming by so quick, but she missed it when it was gone.
We were hungry, so we ordered dinner first, followed by ice cream. My cheeseburger was good enough, but the crinkle-cut french fries were absolutely delicious. My husband really liked his barbecue beef sandwich and side of coleslaw. The food menu has tons of choices, including fried chicken, fish and chips, Italian and Polish sausages, hot ham and cheese sandwiches, pork tenderloins, chili, soup, salads .. well, you get the idea.
For ice cream, Dan had a milkshake (he seems to be on a milkshake kick), but I decided to ask once of the friendly employees what the specialty of the house was. She gave me two recommendations: The strawberry shortcake (ice cream on a biscuit, with strawberries and whipped cream on top) or the hot fudge cake (a warmed chocolate piece of cake with ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream.) I chose the latter, and it was rich and yummy and filled my chocolate quotient for a good day or two!
The prices are very reasonable. I paid $4.15 for my single cheeseburger basket, with fries and slaw. A small shake is $2.00, a hot fudge sundae $2.40. The restaurant, by the way, is definitely one of the cleanest burger or ice cream joints I’ve ever visited.
So why, you might wonder, have I asked you to make sure to say hello to the owners when you visit the Dairy Joy? I hadn’t intended to talk to the owners myself, but when I asked the super-nice employee for an ice cream recommendation, she mentioned that she had worked at Dairy Joy for 14 years – since she was a freshman in high school! She said she just loves working for the owners, because they are such good people. So when she brought over Jan Wahlgren, I introduced myself and gave her one of my Go West Young Mom business cards and tried to explain what the website was about.
When she heard I was going to be writing a story about the Dairy Joy, Jan’s first reaction wasn’t to ask whether it would be positive, or happiness that she’d be getting a little free publicity. Instead, she said she hoped my site could help parents of special-needs children by pointing them toward resources in the area. She seemed to be especially touched by a father who brings his special-needs child into the restaurant every Saturday for an ice cream cone and to play the restaurant’s bowling machine game.
Jan Wahlgren also told me she’s had a couple customers come in lately and say some variation on “I’m so glad the Dairy Joy is still open.” She’s not sure if there was a rumor around that it had closed, or if the customers just meant it’s hard to keep a business like the Dairy Joy afloat these days.
Jan admits that running a restaurant is hard – not the ice cream side of the equation as much as serving the food. But she says she’s not going anywhere and neither is the Dairy Joy. And that’s a very good thing. When you see the photos on their wall of the Little League teams they have sponsored, and all the smiling faces of people who have visited regularly or worked there over the years, you know how important to communities like Hinckley spots like the Dairy Joy are.
The Dairy Joy has a great website where you can learn more about the history of the restaurant, see some nifty photos and print a coupon of the month. It is open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., from the first of March until the end of October. It is closed November through February.