I had been hearing for years that Wagner’s was for sale, that owners Jayne and Alan Wohl were looking to get out after some business and personal setbacks. I didn’t necessarily expect a successor to maintain the exceptional quality of the place’s burgers (admittedly, some days they were better than others), but when I saw that local themed-restaurant impresario Steve Schussler was buying the place, I lost all hope there was.
Schussler is the endearing local entrepreneur who birthed Jukebox Saturday Night, T-Rex, and, most notably, Rainforest Café. He collects kitsch, builds animatronic dinosaurs and such, and spins it all off as restaurant concepts. Rainforest was his big win, and we all know from passing too close to one that its hallmarks are cheese, plastic, and bad food. Six-year-olds love 'em.
Schussler’s plan is to turn Wagner’s, one of the last of the ramshackle, mom-and-pop suburban drive-ins, into Galaxy Drive Inn later in spring. He told the Strib’s Rick Nelson he planned to spiff it up, trick it out with a Jetsons vibe, expand the food offerings, and be open year-round. He thought it might become a national chain.
Schussler’s a loveable guy, I hear, and his enthusiasm is infectious, but why he chose the restaurant business for his themery, I don’t know. This is another death of something authentic for something contrived and fake. Even if he maintains the food quality, and there’s ample reason to suspect Schussler is indifferent to food quality, Wagner’s is dead. And if Galaxy feels like Rainforest in spirit, then most of us who love its food will not be able to endure the place. Faux is foe.
You don’t have to be a grease-stained, bent-over short-order cook to create an authentic burger palace. And God knows Parasole has done very well (and serves a lot of appealing food) executing “concepts” in this town. But Schussler’s brand of eatertainment is all fakery and façade—indifferent to the primary function of a restaurant.
Andrew Zimmern and I wrote in our 2003 Best Burgers feature: “[The Wohl’s] care deeply about food quality and their burger is the ultimate diner burger. Phenomenally juicy hand-formed patties are made exclusively from ground chuck and cooked on a high-heat griddle. Every step of the process is considered and it shows.”
We were bound to lose Wagner’s one way or another. This, though, is the worst-case scenario.
Update: I spoke to Steve Schussler Wednesday morning and he was quite a bit more gracious than I was above. He did not take issue with my take on the food at Rainforest Café, and although we don®