Friday, April 12, 2013

Chow Time: Bill Johnson's Big Apple

The longhorn steer, the saturated primary colors, the bent arrow, the promise of fully-functional neon - the Bill Johnson's Big Apple sign is everything that a roadside restaurant marker should be.  Like a wacky tacky homing beacon, it called out to us; so grateful were we that we stopped to take pictures of this masterpiece of vintage roadside, and then vowed to return after dark for a glimpse of the illuminated sign (and a bite to eat).

"Let's Eat"
You don't have to tell this duo twice!

Well, in another entry into "Places that are better seen than tasted," we bring you the good and the bad of the Bill Johnson's Big Apple experience.  A Phoenix establishment since 1957, the Big Apple has multiple locations throughout Phoenix and the surrounding environs.  We, of course, chose Bill Johnson's original location.

Before diners even enter the premises, they are treated to a Western fantasy -
 cacti, hitching posts, life-size livestock, and that crazy diorama!!!

"The Lost Dutchman" spit-roasts a pig under the starry desert sky.
The Lost Dutchman is an Arizona legend about a mysterious desert
mine that is home to the mother lode but alas, it's a mine from which
no one returns.

Bill Johnson was not just a restaurateur, he was an entrepreneur and showman.  He was probably more well known for his eponymous radio program, broadcast from inside the restaurant, than he was for the BBQ beans and hamburgers that he shamelessly advertised between spinning records (listen here).

But after a long day of driving, sightseeing, and movie premieres, we were more interested in the promise of BBQ than music.  In the 50's, the Big Apple was open until two o'clock in the morning providing late-night sustenance of the edible and musical varieties.  We screeched into the parking lot at ten o'clock, fully prepared to be turned away - the Big Apple's 21st-Century hours end at 10:30.   Fortunately, the staff was very kind and the service superior; we were welcomed with open arms and even complimented on our weird get-ups!

Tired and hungry always seem to
go hand in hand on a road trip.

Mary nuzzles Bill Johnson

Do you ever get swept away by the brilliant, mouth-watering description
 in a menu only to realize when the food arrives that all you've ordered
 is just a pretty mediocre piece of  chicken on a dry bun?  Me too.

Even had the vittles been entirely inedible, there was so much about BJ's Big Apple to love that we were able to look past the pedestrian fare and give the place our wacky tacky seal of approval.

Circle the wagons!
Prairie schooner lights filled the dining room.

A cigar store Indian

Bobbing for the Big Apple?
Come to think of it, aside from this, there was
nary an apple (big or otherwise) to be seen.

When we first pulled into town, we met a charming, lifelong resident of Phoenix (except when for two years she lived in our hometown, what are the odds?).  We explained to her the types of places that we like to visit and asked her if she had any recommendations.  She recommended the Capitol Building and the local museum.  Truly loving legitimate history but hoping to direct her thinking more towards the wacky tacky end of town, we mentioned Bill Johnson's.  "Oh, the Big that place still there?" came her reply.  Well, for a more ringing endorsement we couldn't ask.  If even just for a view of that beautiful sign, it is worth wending one's way down Van Buren Street to Bill Johnson's; it is so exciting, it may just have you doing The Big Apple!

"The Big Apple"

The Bill Johnson's Big Apple sign in all of it's glory!
Maybe next time we'll take advantage of the "All you can eat fish fry."
It's always a good idea to eat fish in the middle of the desert, right?

Bill Johnson's Big Apple the Original
3757 E Van Buren St.
Phoenix, AZ


Mr. Tiny


  1. I'm guessing you didn't have time on this whirlwind trip, but a must-see AZ place is Pinnacle Peak Patio. It's the very--erm--pinnacle--of retro western tacky and the food is actually pretty good :-)

    Also, do let me know the next time you travel through Phoenix, I'd love to meet up with you!

    1. Oh, I'm sad we missed it - it looks perfect. I guess it is a great excuse to come back to town and hang out with you! Mary said that she was very pleased to meet you at VLV. Hope to see you soon!

  2. I still remember the Bill Johnson's jingle from the commercials--"Bill Johnson's Big Apple...we're the apple of your eye!" And yes, sadly, the food is not very good.

    1. I'm glad that you concur. I hate to say that the food is not very good when i've only given it one chance; I'm happy to be bolstered by your opinion!! I looked for a commercial on youtube but could only find relatively new ones.

  3. Van Buren. Vanburrrrren.........Can you say Van Buren?

    1. You did it!!! You said it...I can hear it!!!!

  4. Love the sign lit up at night! Good call going back when it was dark. Glad the decor made up for where they lacked in the food department ;-)

    1. I am such an early bird that I always manage to see these signs in the glaring light of the noon day sun. I made a point of going back after dark for this and some other really awesome signs - stay tuned!!!