By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1997 Gourmet Magazine
Before Ralph Nader, cars were fun. For generations of joyriders, a purring V-8 was a vehicle for play and pleasure. “Companion of carefree days” is how Chevy advertised itself in 1950, when few people behind the wheel worried about such mundane concerns as safety and economy. An automobile had little to do with practical issues; it was an opportunity to experience “something extra from life,” according to ads for the 1925 Buick, “more satisfaction than you have ever known.” An Impala or a Rocket 88 could take you on a slow-speed promenade along Main Street or a pedal-to-the-metal drag race on a back-woods two-lane; it was for tailgate picnics, beach parties, and drive-in movies, and for making out on Lover’s Lane. And a bright chrome cruiser with a bench seat up front and a big, flat dashboard provided incomparable accommodation for savoring cheap eats at the drive-in restaurant on the outskirts of town.
Of all the dreamy things spawned by this nation’s car culture, none is so exuberant as the drive-in restaurant, where the parking lot is a great communal dining room and going out to eat is an evening’s recreation. Perfumed by an enticing swirl of high-octane fumes, luminous fresh-rubbed carnauba wax, and cheeseburgers sizzling on the griddle, with milkshake machines awhirl and carhops clattering along the tarmac on roller skates, a drive-in restaurant is so much more than a fast-food restaurant. It is curbside Americana with a Chuck Berry beat.
In-car dining off a tray hung on the driver’s window may be considered more private than eating in an ordinary restaurant, allowing hungry occupants never to leave the comfort of their own plush seat covers. On the other hand, mealtime at a drive-in is an unusually public dining experience, where Chevy and Ford and Plymouth owners park bumper-to-bumper like different breeds of animals gathering at a favorite watering hole; and where off-the-menu thrills include the opportunity to flaunt that new pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror, to flirt with diners in the vehicle parked nearby, and to cruise the lot and check out who’s there and who they’re with.
“Nobody was really ever in a hurry about leaving,” Mike Anson declared in a 1989 Motor Trend article about the dearly remembered ‘Wich Stand drive-in of Los Angeles. “We were all there to look at other guys’ cars, nurse our malts as long as possible, talk to girls, and find out who was racing whom later that night.”
The main attraction of drive-ins when they first appeared in the 1920s, however, wasn’t sociability—it was speed. And at the earliest ones—the Pig Stand, between Dallas and Fort Worth, for example, and the A&W root beer shops of California—the “tray boys” soon became known as carhops because they hopped onto customers’ running boards to take orders even before arriving diners had slowed to a stop. Like eager-to-please pump jockeys from the Golden Age of gas stations, carhops in search of big tips were polite, pleasant, and even entertaining. Until only a few years ago at THE VARSITY in Atlanta, which first opened in 1928 and is still thriving as the world’s largest drive-in, curb boys were known for singing the highlights of the menu, from chili dogs to fried pies. (We profiled this Georgia landmark that feeds tens of thousands a day in these pages in October, 1995.) At long-gone Sivils Drive-In, outside Houston, tray girls wore satin majorette costumes and high white boots and patrolled the parking lot in military cadence, marching to the rhythm of music blasted by loudspeakers. They were required to memorize the menu and recite it at top speed, and, although they were paid no salary, a 1940 Life cover story about the drive-in phenomenon marveled that the best of these girls earned up to five dollars a day in tips.
After Richard and Maurice “Mac” McDonald made a name for themselves in the late 1930s with a fresh-squeezed orange juice stand called the Airdrome in Arcadia, California, they decided to climb on the fast-food bandwagon and open their own curb-service restaurant in San Bernardino. Like most other successful drive-ins, the McDonald brothers’ place boasted pretty carhops in satin uniforms toting trays of food. It turned a handsome profit, but, after the war, the prescient restaurateurs began to worry that customers might soon grow impatient with even the swiftest carhops. Furthermore, the girls they employed to work the parking lot attracted teenage boys who loitered there, thus scaring off the family trade; and the thrifty brothers fretted that too many customers drove off with their knives, forks, and trays. In 1948 they completely retooled the operation, honing the menu down to fifteen-cent burgers and ten-cent fries. They eliminated carhops in favor of order windows and do-it-yourself service, innovations that also minimized the possibilities for flirtatious repartee. All food came wrapped and bagged—no utensils required—making dishwashers unnecessary and encouraging the clientele to eat fast and beat it.
Curb-service establishments continued to thrive throughout the 1950s, but the McDonald brothers’ streamlined operation foreshadowed the twilight of the true drive-in. Just as raucous, old-time amusement parks gave way to more manageable, family-friendly theme parks, drive-ins faded in favor of formulaic fast-food franchises. The gregarious interaction of carhops and customers—and of customers with each other—yielded to the more efficient and less personal drive-through fast-food restaurants now ubiquitous across the land, where the clientele speaks to a microphone/loudspeaker, and then, more often than not, consumes a meal alone in the car out of a paper bag.
Although they may seem as much a part of pop culture’s past as bobby socks and Brylcreem, a good number of drive-ins are still thriving. Some are museum pieces, such as the West Coast’s Mel’s, which vanished shortly after it was featured in the movie American Graffiti but was recreated as part of Universal Studios theme parks in Florida and California. Similarly, the legendary PORKY’S of Minnesota’s Twin Cities went defunct in the 1970s but was revived in St. Paul in 1990 in all its doo-wop glory, still cooking twin-burgers and skin-on fries, but without the carhops.
Such evocative restorations are fun, but not as much fun as genuine drive-ins. The following selection features some of our favorite curb-service eateries that still have broad parking lots and an active social scene. If you visit one, remember, please: Drive-in etiquette says to blink your lights for service; only a hooligan toots his horn.
Being generally wieldy, hamburgers are consummate drive-in fare, and you’ll find none more perfectly suited to in-car dining than those on the menu at THE SYCAMORE in Bethel, Connecticut. Even the overstuffed, double-patty Dagwoodburger manages not to ooze too much from its bun, thanks in part to the wax-paper wrapper in which it is pocketed. Sycamore’s disks of grilled beef are themselves extraordinarily tasty—good ground steak flattened onto the grill with a spatula so it develops a savory web of crust that is well complemented by limp onions, melted cheese, pickles, mustard, and shredded lettuce. On the side, the Sycamore serves frosted mugs of root beer that can be either wickedly sweet or brut depending on exactly when yours is drawn from the keg.
Ever since the remarkable success of nickel-a-glass root beer at A&W stands during Prohibition, “the temperance beverage” has been an axiomatic drive-in drink. At any of the three curb-service HIRES BIG H outlets in Salt Lake City, Utah, it comes in five sizes, from “baby” to large. And, of course, there are rootbeer floats, or you can sip a limeade or a marshmallow chocolate malt. The juicy quarter-pound Big H burger is available plain or topped with bacon, ham, pastrami, Roquefort cheese, grilled onions, or a trio of crunchy onion rings, and it is brought to the car in a wax-paper bag that makes a handy mitt. The bun is gentle-tempered sourdough with a floury top (as opposed to what the combative menu describes as “some preservative-enhanced, wilted crust studded with obnoxious seeds”), and French fries and onion rings are served with dipping sauce reminiscent of French dressing. Hires even accommodates beef-phobes with its Harvest H, a mock hamburger made of oats, barley, and vegetables, but garnished like the real thing with sauce, lettuce, tomato, and melted American cheese.
Up in Perry, Utah, the MADDOX DRIVE-IN, attached to the Maddox SteakHouse, serves lots of hamburgers but specializes in another drive-in delight, the chicken basket: fried chicken and French fries piled into a woven plastic trough. Here the favored beverage is “fresh lime,” a drink that tastes something like Sprite doctored with lime juice and extra sugar. The long, covered tramway where you park is festooned with enthusiastic signs apparently meant to stimulate appetites: WE SERVE ONLY GRAIN-FED BEEF… WE INVITE YOU TO VISIT OUR ENTIRE OPERATION. What we remember best about this mid-century showpiece is the huge, spinning sign high above the restaurant, where futuristic letters proclaim MADDOX FINE FOOD.
The Midwest has more than its fair share of motorific eat-shops, two of the best at the southern tip of Lake Michigan: JOHNSON’S BLUE TOP of Highland, Indiana, and SUPERDAWG of Chicago. Blue Top carhops speed under the neon-trimmed carport on roller skates, toting half-pound Big Ben burgers and shaved beef sandwiches sided by cherry colas. All-beef hot dogs are the specialty at Superdawg (a fact that’s apparent when you spot the ten-foot tall anthropomorphic frankfurters on the roof, he in a leopard skin Tarzan outfit, she in a cheerleader’s skirt); they are delicious, taut-skinned tube steaks available with the full array of condiments local wienerphiles demand. Other Superdawg delights include a Whoopercheesie (a double cheeseburger), a Whoopskidawg (Polish sausage), and a Supershake too thick for any straw.
On the western shore of the lake in Milwaukee, NITE OWL, technically does not belong on the drive-in honor roll, because you actually have to get out of your car to order—there are no carhops. Nevertheless, it has a car-culture soul irresistible to the drive-in aficionado. A large percentage of customers do dine in their vehicles, thus creating a boisterous parking-lot communality, especially on Friday nights; and the hamburgers are quintessential. The Jumbo Burger, which comes with ketchup, mustard, pickles, and grilled onions, is touted on the menu as “the largest postwar burger in the area.” But if even that isn’t big enough, the Nite Owl makes a specialty of double patties packed inside the toasted buns. Likewise, an order of French fries is immense, and a hot fudge sundae, which you can get strewn with pecans, is big enough for two.
Toward the Upper Peninsula, at THE PENGUIN of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a carhop is by your window at the blink of your headlights. The menu is a big one, including chicken by the bucket and a savory double-perch plate, but the best meals are “charco-grilled sandwiches”— bratwurst and hamburgers in particular, the latter available plain or Big-Penny–style, meaning with the works. You can get perfectly good French fries or onion rings heaped alongside the sandwich on your pastel wire window tray, but connoisseurs of regional eats accompany their Big Pennies with an order of cheese nuggets. These warm, butter-yellow curds deep-fried to a glistening crisp are essential munchies for those strolling through the area’s county fairs, and they are especially good to pop down the hatch in a car. Dessert at the Penguin is another Dairy State delectation: smooth, freshly made custard, either plain or topped with a spill of hot fudge.
At many drive-ins in the South, the favored entrée will be barbecue as often as hamburgers or hot dogs, and the beverage of choice is neither root beer nor malts but iced tea. Sweet iced tea, you can be sure: An attendant at THE BEACON of Spartanburg, South Carolina, once bragged to us that the kitchen used two tons of sugar every week to sweeten its tea, which is served in titanic glasses and guaranteed to put the sugar content in any soda pop to shame. The Beacon’s choice meal is pork; take your pick of velvet-soft slices from inside the shoulder or chewier, high-flavored hunks from the exterior, both impeccably dressed with tangy tomato sauce. On sandwich or platter, the pork is best accompanied by hash—a meaty, gravy like stew—and relish-sweet slaw. As speedy and efficient as curb service is in the immense parking lot, every new customer of the Beacon must experience the dining inside, too. Here, you move along a cafeteria-style line where order takers call meals back to the open kitchen with more hysteria than a trader on the floor of the commodities exchange and where your food appears faster than in any fast-food restaurant on earth.
The best-known Carolina curbside institution is MAURICE’S PIGGY PARK of West Columbia. The Bessinger family name has been synonymous with good barbecue in these parts for decades, and at Maurice’s sprawling place the pork is superb. Cooked long and slow over hickory wood, it is lean meat with an exquisitely fine smoke flavor, dressed with a spicy mustard sauce and accompanied by such pig-pickin’ delicacies as fried pork skin and rice smothered with pork hash. Ribs are also excellent, crusted with that fetching mustard-yellow potion that Mr. Bessinger has dubbed his “million-dollar secret sauce.” You can eat inside at the Piggy Park, where there are large, rustic-themed dining rooms with tables and chairs, but it is hard to resist the order phones at each car slip, where customers are promised a wait of less than three minutes. Above the parking lot, a huge American flag flaps in the breeze. Next door, famished souls can pick up a free Bible at the Lighthouse Mission and Religious Meeting Hall—Maurice Bessinger, director. What could be more American than this combo of God’s word, Old Glory, and curbside barbecue with a three-minute guarantee?
Johnsen’s Blue Top
The Penguin (permanently closed)
3900 Calumet Avenue
The Varsity (permanently closed)
61 North Avenue
Atlanta, GA Tel.