PICTURED: From left: Barbecue chicken burger, loaded potato skins, Ed’s one-half chicken basket and foot-long hot dog with chili and cheese. Behind: Oreo milkshake and chocolate malt. Photo by N. Lackey Shaffer

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Busy Bee Cafe
478 E. Main St., Ventura

The best thing about Busy Bee Cafe is its vintage charm. The ’50s throwback diner has all the style of an old-fashioned soda shop, with round stools at the counter, black and white checkered flooring, lots of chrome accents and vinyl booths in a classic candy apple red — each one sporting its own mini jukebox with a selection of oldies but goodies. It has a menu to match: all the milkshake, malt and sundae options; egg creams, phosphates and ice cream sodas; and even flavored Cokes. And for food, there’s breakfast all day plus sandwiches, burgers and fried things galore, many available in full-sized or the more modest (and cheaper) “blue plate” portions. What’s not to love?

You can enjoy Busy Bee’s retro eats (if not decor) on its outdoor dining space on Main Street in Ventura. Better yet: Take the vintage flavor home with a to-go order, courtesy of the restaurant’s own delivery service.

The online takeout/delivery website is still under development, but the menu is online (www.busybee.cafe) and the phone gets picked up promptly. The person I spoke with was exceptionally kind and patient, answering all my questions thoroughly and graciously accepting my hemming and hawing. With her help, I settled on an Oreo milkshake and a chocolate malt, a blue-plate size of Ed’s one-half chicken basket, the barbecue chicken breast burger, a foot-long hot dog and an order of the loaded potato skins. There are some healthier options, like a primavera pasta and some nice salads, but if you’re going to a diner, you might as well embrace the experience.

I was given a 45-minute delivery time; it was closer to 30 and the food arrived hot and fresh, thanks to an exceptionally nice delivery person. Everything was packaged well; not a single item leaked, spilled or got mangled during transport. 

The food was very much as expected: American classics that didn’t break any barriers, but satisfied nonetheless.

Unsurprisingly, the shakes were the highlights of the meal. Busy Bee makes some of the best in town, and both were rich, thick and delicious. Lots of Oreo cookie flavor for the one; the other had plenty of chocolate but not near enough malt. They’re also enormous — just like everything else on the menu.

The chicken basket came with three pieces of fried chicken, a mountain of fried potato wedges and a biscuit. That was the blue plate size — and it was easily enough for two to share, or one hungry person’s dinner and some leftovers. It’s also some of the crispiest fried chicken I’ve had. The texture of the meat inside was good: not overdone, still plenty juicy. The flavor, however, was underwhelming — I’m not sure there was any seasoning at all. If you’re watching your sodium intake, it would probably be perfectly lovely, but I personally was dying for some salt and pepper.

The potato skins are, indeed, loaded, with lots of cheese and diced bacon. Very filling.

The barbecue chicken breast burger included a good sized chicken breast, perfectly grilled, topped with tangy barbecue, melted provolone and all the usual burger fixings. Quite good, but again . . . a little light on the seasoning. The barbecue sauce made up for that, but next time I’d ask for extra sauce. 

My personal favorite was the hot dog, loaded with meaty chili and cheese. Again, enormous. The menu boasts that it’s enough for two, and I would not disagree. And, unlike some of the other items we ordered, it was packed with flavor.

The other big hit: the potato wedges. Curly and sweet potato fries have their fans, but I’ll take these thick-cut, skin-on, battered and crispy hunks any day! They were included with both chicken dishes and the dog, and altogether we had plenty for two nights of snacking . . . even if they did require a sprinkling of salt.

I won’t deny that we missed the chrome and the jukebox. But after putting Elvis on Spotify and digging into our diner delights, we were able to recreate the fun and flavor of the ’50s at home. Perfect for a Throwback Thursday — or any time you’re in the mood for a no-fuss, old-fashioned, soda shop kinda meal.