By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine
For two-lane travelers, pulling into a parking lot perfumed by hamburgers and hot onion rings is as satisfying as any four-star dining experience. At a true classic drive-in, you never even need to undo your seatbelt. Ensconced behind the steering wheel, you order from a carhop or by talking into a speaker box. Moments later, here comes the food on a tray designed to hang on a partially rolled-down window.
In-car dining isn’t a necessity of the genre, though. Any road-oriented place set up for automobiles, motorcycles, and short-haul trucks can call itself a drive-in. Our list of ten great ones around the country includes some with traditional blink-your-lights curb service and others with takeout windows, plenty of parking, and picnic tables.
The South’s drive-in trail leads to barbecue, fried chicken, boudin sausage, and biscuits stuffed with streak o’ lean. At the Beacon Drive-In (255 John White Sr. Boulevard, Spartanburg, South Carolina), before the car window is rolled halfway down, you will be accosted by a curb boy ready to virtually sing a menu that ranges from gizzard plates to banana sandwiches. We recommend the Pork A-Plenty: chopped and sauced hickory-cooked hot barbecue and cool coleslaw on a bun, buried under a mountain of deep-fried onions and french fries. And of course the only correct libation to accompany this tremendous meal is sweet tea, served in a tall tumbler over crushed ice and so cold that gulpers run the risk of a brain-freeze headache.
Route 66 between Chicago and St. Louis has become Interstate 55, and the Cozy Dog Drive In (2935 South Sixth Street, Springfield, Illinois) is now situated where the old Abe Lincoln Motel used to be, but the motto of this midcentury mother-road treasure still holds absolutely true: “One calls for another.” Invented in 1946 by Ed Waldmire Jr., when he was in the Air Force and stationed in Texas, the drive-in’s corn-clad, deep-fried pup was originally called a Crusty Cur and was a big hit with flyboys at the Amarillo PX. After the war, Waldmire’s wife convinced him that his creation needed a more appealing name, and in 1949 they opened the first Cozy Dog (so christened because no one eats a single, lonely one). You don’t have to be a street-food connoisseur to grasp the difference between a Cozy Dog and an ordinary corn dog. The Cozy’s batter jacket has a vivid crunch and earthy corn flavor; the dog within is plump with juice. Family baskets include four Cozy Dogs and a large order of freshly cut french fries.
The wood-slat picnic tables arrayed under flowering trees at Harry’s Place (104 Broadway, Colchester, Connecticut) have been a favorite summer stop for people on their way to and from the Connecticut shore for more than 80 years. There is no curb service. Exit your vehicle and stand in line, place an order and pay, then slide over to the pick-up window. The view is breathtaking: two dozen hamburgers lined up on a glistening hot grill, sizzling and sputtering and oozing juice. They are formed from spheres of meat that get slapped onto the grill and lightly squished, but the gnarled patties remain unspeakably luscious inside their rugged crust. Mantled with melted cheese and a few strips of bacon; garnished with slices of summer tomato, lettuce, pickle, and mustard; sandwiched inside a lovely bakery bun; and held together with a long toothpick, this might be the best drive-in hamburger anywhere.
Jay Bee’s (320 Mocksville Highway, Statesville, North Carolina) is not technically a drive-in; it is a drive-through, like the soulless franchised places that crowd so many roadsides. But the menu is fetching, and its brash personality is irresistible. “This Ain’t No Fast Food Joint!” a sign outside brags. “We Proudly Make All Our Menu Items to Order and It Takes a Little More Time.” That would be about a three-minute wait until you are presented with a Prairie Dog topped with barbecue sauce, chopped onions, and melted cheese or a Northerners’ Fancy dog under sauerkraut and mustard. Quarter-pound and half-pound hamburgers are nearly as good as the hot dogs.
If it weren’t so dangerous, we’d tell motorists looking for Jobe’s (permanently closed: 1220 West Sunset Drive, El Reno, Oklahoma) along old Route 66 west of Oklahoma City to simply shut their eyes and sniff it out. Onion-cooked burgers give this vintage drive-in a powerful perfume. Customers decide what they want by studying the menu posted in each car slip above an “Order-Matic” microphone speaker that is connected to a control panel in the kitchen. The repertoire includes hot dogs, chili dogs, and chili slaw dogs, but the specialty is a ground-beef patty grilled with a fistful of thin-sliced onions that get mashed into the surface of the meat and become part of it.
There is no place to eat at the neon-rimmed Leon’s (3131 South 27th, Milwaukee, WI) other than in your car or standing in the parking lot along with other pilgrims who have come for the ultimate frozen dessert. The menu is all custard: cones, cups, sodas, sundaes, malts, pints, and quarts. (Hot dogs are available, but they are irrelevant.) Milwaukee is fanatical about custard, which is heavy, smooth, and pure; denser than the richest superpremium ice cream and nothing like wan frozen yogurt. Leon’s custard is the best, available in only four flavors each day—vanilla, chocolate, butter pecan, and one variety du jour—in cones from one to five dips and in magnificent sundaes whose toppings include crisp-toasted, salted pecan halves.
The mug is a frosted glass of root beer that is dark and spicy, with a cream-rich head of foam; the bun is a Hoosier tenderloin, a crunchy fried pork cutlet dressed with mustard and pickle. Mug-n-Bun (5211 West 10th Street, Indianapolis, Indiana) is a timeless drive-in not far from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Customers have the choice of eating off their dashboard or at an outdoor picnic table, umbrellaed by a radiant heater for cold weather. In-car diners blink their lights for service, and food is presented on window trays by carhops. People seated at tables summon the kitchen by using a buzzer near the posted menu. The root beer is essential, the SuperBurger is a fine tenderloin alternative, and the crunchy onion rings are always a good choice.
The single best thing to eat at Sugar’s (1799 Highway 68, Embudo, New Mexico), a tin-sided house trailer by the side of the road with a small cluster of picnic tables on an adjoining open patio, is a brisket burrito: a sopping-moist heap of smoky beef loaded into a soft flour tortilla along with melted cheese and a spill of spicy roasted green chiles. In the summer, ribs and sausage are added to the smoked-meats menu, and year-round you can get hamburgers, corn dogs, and Frito pie. Sugar, by the way, is the name of the owners’ bulldog, who perches on a nearby adobe wall and barks as each car pulls in.
No one but the staff goes inside Tastee Inn & Out (2610 Gordon Drive, Sioux City, Iowa). Meals are procured at either a drive-through or walk-up window, and they are eaten either in the car or at a picnic table in the parking lot. Run by the Calligan family for half a century, this ingenuous drive-in specializes in what it calls a Tastee sandwich, known elsewhere in northwest Iowa as a tavern or a loosemeats: seasoned, barely sauced ground beef shoveled into a bun with bright orange cheese, pickle chips, and onion. It is sloppy and addictive; its only possible companion is an order of onion chips—bite-size, crisp-fried petals of sweet onion, usually served with a dip similar to ranch dressing.
Cocoa-rich, coffee-strong, and so thick that it’s served with a spoon, the espresso-bean milkshake alone would secure a place for Gott’s Roadside (933 Main Street, St. Helena, California) in America ’s drive-in pantheon. This picnic-table oasis opened in 1949 and has since earned a stellar reputation for third-pound hamburgers (topped with bacon, Cheddar, barbecue sauce, mushrooms, and mayo, if you please), chicken tacos and fish tacos, chili cheese dogs, and to-die-for garlic french fries. In a Napa Valley spirit of culinary enlightenment, the menu also features a seared-rare ahi burger with ginger wasabi mayo and Asian slaw; a winter salad that includes candied walnuts, sliced pears, and blue cheese; and, naturally, an excellent selection of California wines by the glass.