When Eugene Warrington died at the age of 95 last week, hundreds of people laid flowers at his site. Not the site of his grave, but of his grill. Walter’s Hot Dog Stand in Mamaroneck, New York, just 20 minutes from where I grew up in Westchester County, was founded by Eugene’s father, Walter. It was—and remains, according to many—the home of the greatest hot dog money can buy.
When I was a kid, it didn’t take much money: two dogs for a quarter and a watery orangeade for another dime. The line began forming about 10:00 a.m. in front of the food stand, inexplicably a Chinese pagoda (it’s worth a Google search). While waiting, customers could read postcards affixed to the outside of the building from locals traveling abroad who missed their Walter’s fix.
The coveted fare was a dog, a bun, and some mustard. So what was the magic? Maybe it was Eugene’s cooks (always his immediate family) who meticulously lined up the franks on the grill in order to keep an accurate account of the orders. Each hot dog was butterflied with a small knife so two sides of the meat could simmer on the well-oiled sizzling surface.
The buns were carefully laid out on another grill, which was lightly drizzled with butter. While the hot dog was cooking to perfection, customers selected their toppings. You had two choices: mustard or extra mustard. I suppose “no mustard” was an option, but an abstainer would be scorned the same way a St. Elmo’s customer would be for ordering the shrimp cocktail without the sauce.
Each order was wrapped in tissue paper, the last inch of bun and meat peeking out. Those slathered with extra mustard were completely enclosed, making them more easily identified and preventing the inevitable ooze before the first bite. I had my share of stained shirts, a badge of honor for all Walter’s aficionados. The mustard, by the way, was a secret recipe. Everyone knew there was a hint of relish, but that was the only hint you got. You can buy the mustard online. I looked at the ingredients. There’s something they’re not telling us.
All you could get at Walter’s for decades was a hot dog and a drink. When they added fries in the ’90s, people complained the place risked becoming too McDonaldy. No need for plastic knives or forks at this establishment. And no paper plates.
I never miss a visit to Walter’s when I am back in town. On several occasions, I’ve run into old high school classmates who either still live in the area, or like me, make their pilgrimage to the pagoda, a must-eat stop on every return trip. The building still looks exactly the same, almost frozen in time. Which reminds me: They sell ice cream now, another diversion from the original concept. And another source of disgruntlement from grouchy old frank-o-philes like me.