A waitress in a poodle skirt and sweater – hair tied tight in a ponytail – places a menu featuring burgers, fries and milkshakes on a Formica booth, as an Elvis Presley tune plays from a small jukebox on the table.
This scene isn’t from a black-and-white photo in an old album. It’s from a diner on South Garner Street in downtown State College: Baby’s Burgers and Shakes.
“It’s a dining experience,” said Fred Wood, who – along with his wife, Denise – owns the restaurant. “The food is great, and the music is even better.”
Baby’s is a throwback to the 1950s, with neon signs on the walls, vinyl seats, cooks in paper hats and white T-shirts throwing burgers on a grill, a banner informing customers to “eat and get out” and doo-wop music providing a soundtrack to it all.
Along with that diner atmosphere, Baby’s is also known for its Whimpys – mini-burgers that come in varieties of hamburgers, chicken or Carolina pulled pork that manager Tassy Lopez called the restaurant’s “specialty.”
The diner also has its own mascot.
“Back in the ’90s, we were doing some maintenance to the building,” said Gary Mahute, who serves as an accountant for the business. “They whitewashed the wall outside and painted a cartoon alligator in a 1956 Thunderbird. We started seeing people standing under the logo and getting their pictures taken. It’s not necessarily a tradition, but people did it all the time.”
The diner is an authentic 1947 Silk City diner, made in Patterson, N.J., and originally shipped to State College in the 1960s, Mahute said.
“The diner was already here,” he said. “There were a couple of different businesses in here before this.”
Baby’s originally opened in 1987 and was operated by a trio of State College businessmen, including former Penn State running back Matt Suhey, who played in the NFL for 10 years with the Chicago Bears, winning a Super Bowl ring with the 1985 “Super Bowl Shuffle” squad.
The Woods joined several other business people in a partnership with the original three owners in the early 1990s. Slowly, however, the partners, including Suhey, stepped out, pursuing other business opportunities.
“We still get the question, though: ‘Is Matt Suhey here?” Lopez said.
In 2007, the Woods took over sole ownership of the restaurant.
One popular feature of Baby’s Burgers and Shakes is that kids 12 and younger eat free from 4 p.m. to closing on Sundays and Tuesdays – with two kids per one adult.
“Back then, there weren’t any kids-eat-free places in State College, except for a Shoney’s [which has since closed],” Mahute said.
“I was dating someone with a young daughter at the time, and we went one night. There were families with children all over the place, and everyone was having fun.
“I came back, and we tried it on a Tuesday night. It worked so well that we added it. We put a sign up, and it grew and grew.”
Along with the kids-eat-free evenings, Baby’s has a special every day of the week, Lopez said.
“We have Milkshake Mondays, where milkshakes are half-price,” she said. “That’s a huge, huge thing. We also have Whimpy Wednesdays, and on Thursdays, we have homemade chicken and waffles, Pennsylvania Dutch style.”
Baby’s menu offers a great variety of food, “made to order,” Lopez said.
“I love the chicken Whimpy,” she said. “Our chicken and waffles are really good, and we make a good Reuben sandwich.”
“Our Reubens are really good,” Wood added. “Our chili is great, too. It’s homemade and fresh, with just enough kick.”
Assistant manager Kevin Selders likes the diner’s variety of burgers.
“I like the Crazy Burger [a hamburger served on a doughnut] and the Carolina Burger,” he said.
The diner enjoys a steady patronage, but business really picks up on Saturdays during the Penn State football season in Happy Valley, “to say the least,” Lopez said.
“We do get a lot of customers,” Mahute said. “We get people all the time.”
And Lopez knows exactly why people keep returning to Baby’s Burgers and Shakes.
“It’s the experience,” she said. “It’s a piece of nostalgia for older folks, and it’s an opportunity for kids to learn about history, to actually see what their parents are telling them.”
Mirror staff writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428.