Next week begins the busiest travel time of the year. People from all over the country will be coming back to Fairfield to spend time with their families over the Thanksgiving holiday. While many are anticipating the traditional meal of turkey and pumpkin pie, many out-of-towners look forward to another local dining tradition: Duchess.

For more than 60 years, Duchess has been the place in Fairfield to get hot dogs, hamburgers and fries, and the nostalgia brings people back.

"When we go home (to Fairfield), Duchess is always one of the first places we stop," said Jackie Nobili, who lives in Florida. "I wish we could open one in the Keys. I want a BLT now!"

Patricia Nichols grew up in Fairfield and graduated from Warde in 1971. She now lives in Keene, N.H.

"Every time I came to visit my parents and extended family, I always made a trip (sometimes two) to Duchess. Hot dogs with the works are my guilty pleasure," she said. "I go back to Fairfield to visit elderly aunts and uncles about four times a year now.

"My 90-year-old aunt, who lives near Duchess on Black Rock Turnpike, always slips me a $20 bill and tells me to stop on my way out of town. Little does she know, I have already been on my way into town. So to make her happy, I get one for the road."

Through the years, Duchess has changed its look to keep up with the times. Back in 1957, when the original Fairfield Duchess opened, there was no dining room.

"I remember when Duchess was a little shack and the line was out the door," Tanya Annuncio said. "You either ate in the car or brought it home."

Jim Peck had similar memories.

"Back in the day, before the first remodel, you'd go to the window and order," he said. "I ordered two cheeseburgers with lettuce and mayo. The guy would call to the back, `Two cheeseburgs on a honeymoon. Let us alone!' I always got a kick out of that."

Many people recall "Hot Dog Dave," a man behind the counter who took orders without writing them down.

"The original Duchess had Dave behind the counter, who took the orders and fixed up the dogs," Kevin Fox said. "(He'd put) buns on the palm of his hands and sometimes up his arms a bit, placed the dogs in the buns and then he would start slathering on the mustard, kraut and whatever else you ordered ... all without writing anything down.,

Today, for the record, Hot Dog Dave (Dave Glahn) lives in Bethel.

A few years after it opened, Duchess began to see its first competitors, namely McDonald's, which opened across the Post Road at the traffic circle.

"We've had every competitor you can imagine," said Robert Berkowitz, co-owner of the Fairfield Duchess. "We take a lot of pride that we've been around so long."

Rich Guerra recalls when his family moved to Fairfield in 1958.

"My dad picked up burgers, dogs and fries from a little white shack on the Post Road," he said. "We feasted on a blanket in an empty living room. It was my first taste of Duchess and it was great."

For many people, Duchess is inextricably linked with high-school memories. People recall the parking lot filled with big-finned cars of the day, sporting fuzzy dice. Others have stories of cutting class and getting detention because they left campus and went for hot dogs.

"I used to leave Andrew Warde High School to get Duchess for lunch and go back," Robert Greene said. "I still stop on the way to my bowling league 30-plus years later. A chili dog and a Big D!"

The Big D is Duchess' famous big burger topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup and mayonnaise.

But once upon a time, there was another item on the menu that Wayne Garrison recalled.

"The chicken chow mein sandwich," he said. "It was actually like the LaChoy chicken chow mein you get in a can from the grocery store. They would heat it up and put it on a hamburger roll with some crunchy noodles. Sounds gross, but it was delicious."

Sadly, it's not on the menu today, but there are plenty of other things to choose from, including salads and dinner platters.

"We try to offer a broad menu," Berkowitz said. "We'll even make things not on the menu if we have the right ingredients."

But it wasn't just Fairfield kids that frequented Duchess. Gail Gorian lives in Ohio, but she went to Staples High School in Westport, and she and her friends would hang out at Duchess.

"They were always open later than anything in Westport," she said. "A bunch of us stopped in after our 30th reunion just about closing time. The kids working there were great and I think they had just as much fun as we did."

Ellen Maestre moved away from Fairfield in the 1980s, but would sometimes come back to visit.

"One time when I went back to visit family, I had to get Duchess dogs for my husband who didn't go with me," she said. "So I packed them up and put them in my mom's freezer for a few days. I put them frozen in my carry-on bag and took them back to Florida. He was so surprised, he popped them in the microwave and ate them on the spot. So if nothing else, Duchess dogs travel well."

This summer, the original Fairfield Duchess closed for about six weeks while major renovations were done on the building. What used to be just a walk-up hot dog stand is now a spacious restaurant with televisions mounted in the booths and on the walls, so you can keep the kids entertained or catch up on the news while you enjoy a Big D with cheese.

"Duchess is an institution," said Gary Lavin, president of Duchess Worldwide. "And clearly, it's a place that many people are thankful for."

Duchess, 625 Post Road, is one of the oldest of the 14 restaurants now in the Duchess Worldwide chain. Call 203-259-4874. There is another Duchess in town at 2315 Black Rock Turnpike.