There is a wonderful ritual that takes place each spring; no it’s not the Tulips and Daffodils emerging from the cold ground or the blossoms and sweet scent of flowering trees….It’s the official opening of our beloved Drive-In restaurants! If you have ever eaten at Bill’s Drive-In located in Ypsilanti, you totally get what I am talking about. Though Bills had been open for a few weeks, it was our first opportunity to make the trip out to Ypsi.
Best known for being the home of Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti has a lot to offer; from beautiful historic neighborhoods and a downtown on the comeback to independent shops and restaurants that have called Michigan Avenue home for decades. Our first stop in Ypsi was the Michigan Firehouse Museum located on Cross St. This gorgeous building was the original 1898 firehouse, in 2002 a multi-level addition was added. The museum takes you through the history of firefighting; from technology used to fight fires to the equipment and tools. When you step into the main exhibit space you are greeted by rows of impressive vintage fire trucks. There are no ropes to prevent you from getting right up close to these magnificent vehicles; it’s fascinating to see the evolution of the equipment through the years. The museum possesses the largest collection of fire truck bells in the country, and you know what else? You can try them out! Glass cases line the walls detailing the evolution of helmets and breathing apparatus, some of them are pretty creepy looking….The second level overlooks the main floor giving a wonderful overall view of the firetrucks. You will find display cases filled with hats, toy fire trucks and other interesting memorabilia, remember Smokey The Bear? From here cross over into the original building; this is the original bunk area complete with brass pole! Unfortunately, the pole is off-limits, so you have to take the stairs back down to the main level. Being someone who loves old things, this is my favorite area. Large wood cabinets hold vintage lanterns, it seems everything from the trucks and decoratively painted wheels to the accessories are he handsome and elegant. An original switchboard hangs on the wall, there’s a stunning 1910 ladder wagon, and an amazing example of a 1878 fire engine steamer complete with horses. The lower level is host to a group of original vehicles belonging to fire chiefs and a children’s area. The museum brings back the old childhood fascination of fire trucks!
The short drive down Michigan Avenue to Bill’s Drive-In was filled with great anticipation; would it be as good as we remembered? The small wooden building is appropriately painted Mustard Yellow and Root Beer Brown, you eat from a tray that hangs on your car window, or a picnic table in the lot. I read that Bill’s has been around since the early 50’s and the recipe has always stayed the same, why mess with perfection? As soon as we were parked a car-hop came over to take our order; there are no menus here, they only serve coneys, plain potato chips and their own homemade root beer, perfect for the indecisive diner. I’ll start with the coneys; the hot dogs are made with a special recipe by Dearborn Sausage, they are placed in perfectly steamed buns and given a blanket of, in my opinion, the perfect chili topping. I would describe it as a more mild, sweet and smooth chili sauce, dressed with yellow mustard and minced onion, it arrives wrapped in white tissue. It is the tastiest coney I’ve ever had, they’re one of Kris’s favorites too. Then there’s the Root Beer, if you like Root Beer, you have to try Bill’s. With one big pull on the straw your mouth will be in Root Beer heaven; it’s like drinking one of those old-fashioned root beer barrel hard candies that has been rolled in superfine sugar…..outstanding! Many patrons buy a gallon of the stuff to take home. The day was mild so we ate our dogs outside using the trunk as a table, they were even better than I remembered!
It’s always worth a drive through downtown Ypsi to see what’s new, we noticed a couple of new things so we parked to take a look. We first checked out a retail shop named Mix, it has a wonderful blend of new and used items; women’s clothing, furniture, accessories, household goods and even some art. The shop is laid out attractively and is fun to browse through. Across the street is Mix Market Place, as you may have guessed, it is owned and operated by the same owners as the retail Mix. The marketplace is an indoor collection of local entrepreneurs in a farmer’s market type setting. There was a definite buzz of activity when walked in the door; food vendors offered up samples of their specialized goodies, The Ugly Mug Cafe filled the air with the aroma of fresh brewed coffee. From gourmet food and hand-made stationery to antique goods and artisan soaps there was a little bit of everything. Vendors vary from week to week, so you never know what you may discover.
There was one more new place we wanted to check out: B-24’s Espresso Bar, just a little way up Michigan Ave. Named in honor of Ypsilanti’s heritage, B-24’s were built locally at Willow Run, the cafe features coffee, tea, fresh-baked goods and Guernsey Ice Cream. The cafe seems to be a popular gathering spot for locals of all ages. Though the baked goods looked very good, between the coneys, root beer and free samples at the marketplace, we were unable to partake in any of them. Instead we got our beverages to go and began the journey home.