The other day I decided that I wanted a break from SAGA. I make this decision fairly often; usually I just walk upstairs and get a burger or something at AJ’s. After all, AJ’s has great burgers, quite satisfactory for a hungry, semi-desperate student. Once in a while, however, AJ’s won’t cut it, and I need to get out of Hillsdale.
If you’re feeling the same way, take the twenty-minute drive over to Reading and grab yourself a bite at Ray’s Tavern. Tucked between a Laundromat and “Country Carpets”, Ray’s can be found at 114 S. Main St., a drab sign marking its unobtrusive presence. It’s worth the trip.
Dark wood paneling and warm yellow light greeted my companions and me as we walked into the restaurant. Tire- shaped bladeless fans whirred on the ceiling. Hockey and NASCAR posters give the tavern that coveted Midwest ambiance. High on the walls, Budweiser and Miller iconography battle for attention, marking Ray’s an unpretentious tavern.
It’s clearly a local favorite. It was busy when we arrived and busy when we left. The waitresses were friendly and seemed to know everyone by name. Multiple-generation families squeezed into the cozy booths along the wall. “The locals are what keep it going through the whole year,” Heather Bunce, our waitress, said.
When we sat down at the bar, Bunce greeted us warmly and asked what we would like to drink. I asked for water, but for the over-twenty- one crowd Ray’s has a modest selection of spirits, liquors, and draft or canned beers. I ordered a double cheese- burger ($4.19) stacked high with perfect grilled onions, caramelized yet crisp ($1.00); tomato, lettuce, and mayo ($1.00); and mouth- watering bacon that sizzled enticingly (priceless, but they only charge $1.00 for it).
The meat is good, quality beef from the Hillsdale Market House. It didn’t taste like salt, seasonings, special sauce. It tasted like a cooked slab of cow on bread, as a burger should. The portions were generous. The patties were a third of a pound each; add the fixings and you’ve got yourself a full meal. Still hungry? My group also ordered a basket of fries, a trio of tacos (it was Taco Thursday), and a slice of lemon pie. Everything was delicious.
Bunce says that the best thing about Ray’s is “the small-town, family atmosphere. More than anything, it’s pretty easygoing.” It was; waitress and patron alike were open and willing to chat. Happy conversation filled the room; in the few lulls Imagine Dragons, Coldplay, and Muse provided background music.
Ray’s has a long history. Ray Rudelier established it in 1942, and it has stayed in the family ever since. Today his daughter runs the place. She was cooking in the kitchen the night we went. If Rudelier passed on a family recipe, it is a good one: when USA Today celebrated the centennial of the hamburger in 1989, it named Ray’s Tavern the best burger joint in the country.
My trip to Ray’s was a great respite from Hillsdale. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxing. The sound of laughter, warm conversation, delighted chewing, and good music melded into a harmony of content Americana. The food was great, the burgers especially so. I enjoyed every hot and messy bite.
If SAGA is getting you down and you just want it all to end, head along the delightfully- named Bacon Street out to Reading and find the little family tavern. Remember: they don’t take cards, so come with cash and an appetite. You won’t regret it.