A few years ago I was walking past Tastee-Freez, a fast-food joint on Armitage near California, when I saw workers boarding up the shacklike shop’s windows. I couldn’t help myself—I shouted “No!,” almost like Darth Vader at the end of Revenge of the Sith. I understood that Tastee-Freez had to close for the season—it was the dead of winter, and snow was accumulating around my ankles at that very moment. Few people crave Oreo milk shakes when the temperature’s in the single digits. But to me Tastee-Freez felt like such a permanent fixture, nestled in its little corner of Logan Square and dispensing burgers, hot dogs, and a whole mess of frozen desserts, that every time it shut down it came as a shock.
Tastee-Freez launched in Joliet in 1950. Its website describes the franchise rather grandly: “There’s only one chain in the fast food dessert industry that instills feelings of nostalgia.” That’s true, albeit in a shallow sense. The Logan location looks like a mom-and-pop stop frozen in time back when fast food was still a novelty for Americans. Everything about it—the simple, flag-waving color scheme, the large windows that allow customers to peek into the busy kitchen—harkens back to the good ol’ boom years. But I didn’t grow up then. I wasn’t even alive when John Cougar Mellencamp rode to the top of the Billboard 100 in 1982 with “Jack & Diane,” whose lyrics mention Tastee-Freez. In fact, I’d never even set foot in a Tastee-Freez till I moved to Chicago.
Tastee-Freez doesn’t make me pine for a bygone era I never experienced, but I love it all the same—or rather, I love the one in Logan Square. (I haven’t been to another.) I love the warped wooden benches spread out on the unfriendly blacktop next to the restaurant. I love the food in all its imperfections—the chunky fries that contain enough uncrisped starch to remind you that they were once potatoes, the ice cream cone topped with a structurally unsound tower of soft-serve that drips everywhere, the corn dog with breading hot enough to burn the roof of your mouth even as the dog inside remains cold. I love the worn-down wooden building, stubbornly out of place in a neighborhood of stone structures, with colors that make it stick out like a beacon.
Tastee-Freez is a beacon—and because of that, it’s a hub for impromptu get-togethers. It isn’t a place I ever plan to visit, but I end up there regularly enough that I wonder when the staff will start calling me by name. It’s where I go when I’m on my way to another part of town, or when I’m wandering around with no agenda; it’s where I go when I’m with friends and none of us knows what to eat; it’s where I can always count on running into a friend, and where I sometimes make new ones. If I’m nostalgic for anything about Tastee-Freez, it’s for the nights I drifted over there and stumbled into freewheeling conversations with people I know from the area.
That sense of community keeps me returning to Tastee-Freez—as Logan Square gentrifies and condos blossom around the restaurant, it’s a precious reminder of what neighborhoods are really for. As parts of the city become inhospitable to the middle and lower classes, Tastee-Freez remains open to all. Not that it’s impervious to change—in late spring, the restaurant broke from the franchise and installed a new sign reading simply “The Freeze.” The soft-serve tastes the same.