One of the landmarks of eateries in the Quad Cities is a long time diner called Ross' Restaurant in Bettendorf. Famous for their 24 hour dining, loose meat hamburgers and "The Magic Mountain", Ross' is an institution in the Quad Cities hosting famous people and politicians over the years. I'm sort of surprised at myself for not talking about Ross' earlier. Well, better late than never.
The story of Ross' Restaurant begins back in the late-30's when Harold Ross began to work at Scudder's Maid-Rite Shop in Toledo, IA. Looking to open his own Maid-Rite location, Harold moved to Bettendorf, IA and opened a franchise there. Things were starting out well for Harold - until World War II came around. He stepped away from his restaurant and joined the Navy. Ross became a cook in New Guinea during the war saying afterward, "That was fine with me. I wasn't mad at anyone."
After the war, Harold came home and married his long-time girlfriend, June Scudder, the daughter of Charles and Nina Scudder, the owners of the Maid-Rite shop in Toledo. The original Ross' Maid-Rite shop was just across the street from its present day location (see map) where a gas station now stands. In 1965, Ross moved his restaurant across the street.
Somewhere along the way, Harold - who could be a somewhat cantankerous cuss - got fed up with the Maid-Rite corporation. Suddenly, his Maid-Rite loose meat sandwiches became "Rossburgers". Quite honestly, I won't eat at any of the Maid-Rites in the Quad Cities because Ross' has the best Maid-Rite style sandwiches in the area. Harold and June ran the restaurant until they retired in 1975. Their daughter, Cynthia Friedhof, and her husband, Ron, bought the business from Harold and June, and have run it ever since. Their daughter, Melissa, is involved in the business, as well.
Ron Friedhof is responsible for possibly the most iconic food dish in the Quad Cities, the Magic Mountain. The Magic Mountain starts off with a couple pieces of Texas toast that is covered with Rossburger meat. You then have your choice of French fries or hash browns on top of that, then the whole thing is capped off with a healthy dose of melted cheese sauce. Customers can then opt for a snow-capped Magic Mountain - topped with chopped onions. The Volcano is basically a Magic Mountain topped with Ross' spicy chili. At 6:30 at night, that may not sound very good. But after a night of drinking, thousands of Magic Mountains and Volcanos have been consumed at 2:30 a.m.
(People in Springfield, IL say that Friedhof took the idea for the Magic Mountain from their iconic "Horseshoe sandwich". The Magic Mountain is similar, but the Horseshoe sandwich - which has been around since the late 1920's - has ham or turkey instead of ground beef. Either way, both are cholestoral bombs.)
A number of famous people have visited Ross' over the years to try a Magic Mountain. Moline native Louie Bellson and his wife, Pearl Bailey, have been to Ross'. Bill Murray has visited (his paternal aunt and uncle lived a block over behind us and we got to know them pretty well at neighborhood gatherings), as has world-renown opera singer Simon Estes. Bette Midler has had a Magic Mountain, and because of Iowa's "first-in-the-nation" status a number of presidential candidates have stumped for votes at Ross'. However, probably no one more famous than the President of the United States has been in Ross'. Completing a campaign pledge to Ron and Cynthia Friedhof in 2008, Barak Obama stopped at Ross' during a trip to the Quad Cities in 2011. Here is Obama and Cynthia Friedhof during his visit with Obama holding one of Ross' massive cinnamon rolls. Melissa Freidhof made Obama a Volcano that day. No, he didn't eat the whole thing. (Picture courtesy The Atlantic Wire.com)
Cynthia Freidhof and her daughter also took the Magic Mountain on the road with a televised appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC after Obama's visit. Click here to see the Rachel Maddow segment of Cynthia and Melissa Freidhof making a Magic Mountain and Volcano. It also includes a snippet of when Cynthia Friedhof first talked to Barak Obama in the summer of 2008, and his subsequent visit to their restaurant three years later. It's actually a pretty interesting video.
On a fall afternoon, we decided to head down to Ross' and get Rossburgers for lunch. We went inside and we took a booth along the east side and was greeted by a waitress with a couple of menus for us. We'd recognized her from waiting on us before. A number of waitresses at Ross' have worked there for years and years.
The inside of Ross' is colorful and well-lit. Large windows illuminate the dining area during the daylight hours. The dining room features a number of booths with some tables interspersed in the room.
There is a classic counter at Ross' - actually two of them. There's a small L-shaped counter that seats 7 and next that is another counter that has high-backed chairs and seats around a dozen people. More booths and tables are in the same area as the counter.
The menu at Ross' features breakfast 24 hours a day, a number of sandwiches and salads, regular hand-pattied burgers, and meals such as fried chicken, grilled pork tenderloins, and breaded shrimp. Ross' also has a blackboard that lists the daily special along with what kind of pies they have that particular day.
But Cindy and I were there for Rossburgers that day. Actually, I've had Rossburgers for breakfast many times before. I usually order the breakfast special number 5 - two eggs with bacon, and a Rossburger with cheese. But I just wanted a couple Rossburgers with cheese on this visit. Cindy got the Rossburger basket - French fries and cole slaw come with the basket. The waitress asked us if we wanted ketchup on the Rossburgers - some people still like the old time way the original Maid-Rites were served with no ketchup. We declined the ketchup.
It doesn't take too long to get the Rossburgers to the table. They're wrapped in wax paper to be able to catch the crumbling meat as it falls out with each bite. Sometimes, I'll get a Rossburger and a bowl of their very good chili and pour the excess meat into the chili. It's just killer.
This particular Rossburger was no exception. If you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you'll know that I'm rather partial to the Maid-Rites they have at the Newton Maid-Rite. While it's not an exact copy, the Rossburgers are about as close I've found to the Newton Maid-Rites anywhere in Eastern Iowa or Western Illinois.
Cindy said that her cole slaw was pretty bland, but I did help her with some of her fries. The fries they have at Ross' are crispy on the outside and fluffy inside. I normally don't eat fries with burgers all that much, but I will order the fries at Ross' from time to time. I figured getting a couple Rossburgers with cheese were enough for me, but just a few fries didn't hurt.
At the cash register, sitting in cellophane on a tray, are Ross' giant homemade cinnamon rolls (below left). Large cinnamon rolls are sort of a signature item with most breakfast places in the Quad Cities. The ones at Ross' are certainly no exception. When I make homemade chili, I'll go down to Ross' to get a couple cinnamon rolls to get something sweet to go along with the spicy taste of the chili. Yep, cinnamon rolls with chili. I got that when I was going to school at the Newton Community School District all those years ago. They'd serve cinnamon rolls with chili for school lunches and I loved the taste combination of the two. Still do. Ross' has some of the best homemade cinnamon rolls around.
Since it's situated next to the Interstate 74 bridge - and there are plans in the works to replace the two-lane double spans with two four-lane spans beginning sometime in the next three to five years - Ross' Restaurant is looking to move their location. Already, property has been bought up around the restaurant and many buildings have been razed for the project. It's only a matter of time before the Friedhof's have to move and look for property to build a new Ross'. But you can bet the new place will still have the same down-home feel as the present building possesses. Ross' is truly an icon in the Quad Cites.