CuriosiD: What’s with all the white tile burger joints in metro Detroit?

In this episode, we dig into the savory history of the area’s tiny, white slider-serving diners.

At one point Detroit had dozens of the white-clad slider spots, but now only about a dozen remain.

At one point Detroit had dozens of the white-clad slider spots, but now only about a dozen remain.

WDET’s CuriosiD series answers your questions about everything Detroit. Subscribe to CuriosiD on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts.

In this episode of CuriosiD, we answer the question:

Why are there so many white, similar looking slider joints in metro Detroit?

The Short Answer 

Introduced by German immigrants, the hamburger was popular with the working class from the late 19th century through the early 1900s. But a series of stories about gross conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry turned many off to the quick, affordable food. Then in Wichita, Kan., the first White Castle opened in 1921. Serving up the tiny, greasy griddle-fried burger with some onions and adding a pickle turned into a huge success. That spurred imitators across the country — and the trend boomed in Detroit after World War II. At one point Detroit had dozens of the white-clad slider spots, but now only about a dozen remain.

A solitary slider at Carter's in Dearborn Heights.
A solitary slider at Carter’s in Dearborn Heights.

What is a slider anyway?

The term “slider” has been used to describe basically any sort of tiny sandwich. Barbecue chicken sliders. Banh mi sliders.

This is wrong, according to George Motz, America’s preeminent burger historian and expert.

“You take a one and a half ounce ball of beef and press onions into the beef and cook it and serve it on a small bun — that’s a slider,” said Motz. “Nothing else is a slider. Nothing else.”

Adding cheese is more than acceptable and pickles are almost mandatory.

What’s with the look?

You’ve seen the all-white — either brick or porcelain steel siding — restaurants on several corners across metro Detroit. With names like Telway Hamburger System, Bates’ Burgers and Hunter House, it’s not uncommon to see a couple of them on one drive. They’re not quite the same, but not that different. With all offering a lunch counter, diner vibes and sliders.

Elmer's Hamburgers in Detroit.
Elmer’s Hamburgers in Detroit.

So how did the look become so synonymous with burgers in metro Detroit?

After muckraker Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906 about the gross conditions at meat packers in Chicago, it spurred industry-wide reforms. It also turned a lot of people off to ground beef — and in turn — the hamburger. 

Then in 1921, America got the hero it both needed and wanted.

“One hamburger joint changed and basically saved the hamburger in America,” Motz said. “It was White Castle.”

The Wichita, Kan.-based chain made cleanliness — or at least the appearance of being sanitary — a priority.

“White Castle actually invented a paper cap so they could dispose of the thing, put a new one on it right away if it got dirty,” Motz said. “So looking clean basically saved the hamburger.”

The literal white castle-looking buildings also had lots of stainless steel on the inside further promoting the idea everything was immaculate.

Copycats like White Tower popped up across Michigan and the Midwest, hoping to capitalize on White Castle’s slider success. In metro Detroit, the joints were everywhere as the middle-class expanded in the boom after World War II.

Top Hat, now defunct, and Carter’s were two of the top local chains. At their peak, they each had over a dozen locations.

There’s only one Carter’s remaining.

Carter's Hamburgers at Outer Drive and the Southfield Freeway in Dearborn.
Carter’s Hamburgers at Outer Drive and the Southfield Freeway in Dearborn.

Descent into Deliciousness

With so many slider joints in the area, it only makes sense to visit a bunch to satisfy our CuriosiD… and appetites.

I met up with WDET listener Nick Brown to explore a few of the area’s best burgers.

First stop was Greene’s Hamburgers in Farmington. A Formica counter that faced the kitchen and another stainless steel counter along the windows. It really set the template for the rest of the day’s stops. Greene’s opened in 1957 and Candace Dulka has been working there for the last 14 years or so. She loves the mix of customers that come in.

“You get all walks of life in here, which is another really cool part about working here,” Dulka said. “From the CEOs to the janitors… just generations of families that have been coming here for the over 60 years that we’ve been open. It’s just really neat to see all the different people and all the different stories.”

Candace Dulka taking a brief break from work behind the counter at Greene’s.

Moving onto Bates’ Hamburgers in Livonia, we bumped into Pat Polzin, who was there grabbing sliders with a friend. He said — in the past — the joint being open 24 hours has spurred many good times.

“This is a two stop. You don’t just stop here once,” Polzin said. “This is double stop — on the way to the bar and on the way back.”

Bates’ Hamburgers in Livonia

A sign on the side of Bates’ reminds customers in their tiny parking lot the City of Livonia forbids eating in cars.

That is not a problem at Sonny’s Hamburgers.

The sign outside Sonny’s Hamburgers in Detroit

You place your order at the walk-up window, then hang out in the parking lot, waiting for a voice over the loudspeaker to tell you your order is ready. They don’t do “sliders” at Sonny’s. They do “small hamburgers” and “large hamburgers.” It’s the same effect, though it was agreed the burgers at Sonny’s had more in the way of ketchup and mustard than the other spots.

Onto Carter’s Hamburgers in Dearborn where we bumped into a man identifying himself only as Pookie. He was there with a buddy grabbing a sack of 20 sliders to take to Three Nicks Scoreboard in Allen Park.

The ladies at Carter’s wrapping up sliders for Pookie.

Carter’s was started as a chain back in 1948 and had over a dozen locations, but just one spot remains. Pat Underwood has been working there for 55 years. The all-beef patties on the griddle are well-seasoned. Underwood gets salty if you suggest otherwise.

“Absolutely ain’t no shit in there,” Underwood said. When asked if that means other slider joints are using some less than quality ingredients, she elaborated.

“Well it’s not for me to say, but I don’t like that ‘ol soy burger,” she said. “You wouldn’t catch me eating at McDonald’s or Burger King.”

Pat Underwood tells it like it is at Carter’s.

The slider tour moves onto Telway on Michigan Avenue in Detroit in search for more sliders and a pick-me-up.

The Telway Hamburger System has a sister location in Madison Heights. Both make claim to the best hamburgers and coffee in town.

A quick order through bulletproof glass and soon we were munching on another slider.

“Coffee is hot as hell,” said Brown. As for the flavor of both the slider and the beverage, it was tough to tell through the burning.

The hottest coffee in town at Telway.

Getting full, the slider tour makes one final stop at Elmer’s on West Chicago Boulevard in Detroit. Angela Knox grew up in the area and was there getting her usual order of sliders with extra pickle, extra onion.

“I’ve been coming here for, oh my goodness, probably as long as they’ve been open,” Knox said.

Sadly, Elmer’s ran out of beef while we were chatting, but with Luther Vandross coming through a car speaker in the parking lot and the rain letting up for the first time all day there were no bad vibes. Just a promise to come to Elmer’s on a different day.

About the listener

WDET Listener Nick Brown with reporter Russ McNamara holding up their order from Telway

Nick Brown, of Brighton, is an engineer with Stellantis. He had seen all the similar-looking slider joints while driving around the area, but only stopped at one — Greene’s. As for which burger reigned supreme in our mini-slider tour: “Greene’s… no… Carter’s. Definitely Carter’s.”

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.