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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003 02:20 pm


Two stops on the Mother Road

Ben, Mary, and Jim Davison

There are plenty of places in town to get a couple of eggs, a cheeseburger, or a cup of coffee. But only on Historic Route 66 can you get your food served by a racecar driver who likes to show off his flying Barbie doll.

On a trip through Springfield, you'll see just a few traces left of what the original route was really like. Now there are more chain restaurants than local diners. But at least two Springfield eateries are still getting their kicks feeding customers a dose of nostalgia and originality. Not to mention comfort food and cheap prices.

Ask racecar driver and restaurant owner Jim Davison which of his career hats he likes best and there's no hesitation. "Racing is my life," he says, as he puffs on a cigarette and leans against the counter of his restaurant, Jungle Jim's Cafe. Located at 1923 Peoria Road, the restaurant has been serving breakfast to tourists traveling the Mother Road for 25 years.

If you're lucky to stop by when Davison is behind the counter, he will tell you all about his career as a racecar driver (he has broken 34 bones and lost a kidney) and his famous friends. He'll even show you the flying Barbie, which is suspended from a wire along the ceiling and can zip from one side of the cafe to the other. The doll was a gift from the daughter of famed racecar driver Kenny Schrader.

Davison started out grilling pork chops in the pits of the Springfield Speedway, which led to his opening a downtown concession stand and eventually his own restaurant. The menu lists an abundance of breakfast options, like pancakes and eggs and an endless cup of coffee (only 69 cents with a meal). Daily specials include meatloaf and stuffed peppers, turkey and dressing, chicken and noodles, and country fried steak. The walls of the cafe are lined with pictures, racing memorabilia, family photos, and racing trophies. Davison, who earned the name "Jungle Jim" during a fight at a racetrack in his younger days, says he's semi-retired but he still stops in at the cafe nearly every day. He seems to know everyone who walks in the door.

"We treat each customer individually," he says.

His son, Ben, 25, now serves as manager. Both Ben and Jim Davison race cars nearly every weekend and recently won the Wynn's Sportsman Nationals at the Illinois State Fair. "People from all over the world have come in here because of Route 66," says Ben Davison, who recalls sitting on a milk carton so he could reach the counter to help his family wrap napkins around silverware.

But the customers have changed through the years, from Harley riders and racecar drivers to families and senior citizens. Now "we have a lot of little old ladies," says Davison. "Less racing people and more families." He says seniors on fixed incomes stop in for the cheap prices and heaping helpings.

Jungle Jim's Cafe, 1923 Peoria (217-789-6173), is open 6 a.m.-2 p.m. seven days a week.

Much has been written about the birthplace of the corn dog. Founded in 1949 by Ed Waldmire, the Cozy Dog Drive-In has long been a favorite stop, as much for its Route 66 museum and colorful memorabilia as for its famous wiener.

Owner Sue Waldmire, who began working at the business in 1974 when she was in high school, says not much as changed through the years, except for the recently added pair of illuminated rotating Cozy Dogs topping the restaurant. "But it's the same old motor," she says, laughing. They replaced the wooden pair, which now stand near the front door.

The original Cozy Dog was invented by Waldmire while he was in the Air Force stationed in Amarillo. He originally called them "Crusty Curs," but later changed the name when he came home and officially launched them at the Lake Springfield Beach House and the Illinois State Fair. Waldmire also sold his invention in two tiny dog houses, as he called his concession stands, on South Grand and MacArthur and Ash, before building a restaurant on Route 66 in 1950. He shared the space with a Dairy Queen. The Cozy moved to its present home, next door to the old location, in 1996.

Inducted into the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame and named one of USA Today's "50 Great Plates in America," the business has always been a Route 66 fixture. Waldmire says more than 50 percent of her customers are Mother Road travelers. "They're pretty amazed and highly impressed," she says. "Cozy Dogs are a unique item. There's only one. They can get versions at state fairs, but they are not the original." She sells up to 500 a day during the busiest months.

While the fast food on a stick is the main attraction, other food is also served, like eggs, pancakes, and French toast, as well as freshly cut French fries, hamburgers, homemade chili, and bean soup. The wiener cooked in cornbread is good, but the history of the place is better. Articles, photographs, and artwork about the restaurant, the Waldmire family, and the Mother Road are tacked on the walls and stuffed into scrapbooks displayed on shelves. Customers enjoy browsing through the display, which is like looking at your grandmother's family album. The Route 66 artwork, postcards, and posters were mostly created by artist Bob Waldmire, son of the founder.

The Cozy Dog Drive-In, 2935 S. Sixth (217-525-1992), is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The place is usually closed on Sunday, except for this weekend, when it will be open on Sunday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.




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