Pilot Butte Drive-In is Bend at its most classic. A carhop-staffed parking lot is tempting, but the interior makes it worth getting out of your car. Inside, cozy booths surround a lava rock fire pit centerpiece. You can even eat at the counter right by the fire. In the Cascadian winters when you need to warm up, this place is extraordinarily cozy and charming, especially for a roadside burger joint.
Like many drive-ins of the American West, it is a converted A&W — Pilot Butte Drive-In since 1983. In the rapidly changing town of Bend, it is one the sure and dependable things. Diner breakfasts, big burgers, and classic baskets of fried snacks are all done well. It’s good food, but most of all — as the house motto says — “it’s big.”
We knew it was going to be too much, and we expected to get messy, but we couldn’t resist ordering the Pilot Butte Burger. It’s an 18 ounce patty that requires four slices of cheese for adequate coverage. It is, in fact, too big to bite. The only way to approach it is to cut it into slices, like a pie, carefully extracting a pretty neat piece. The cross section reveals a salad bar’s worth of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and thousand island. The menu recommends sharing this giant burger. We agree, it could probably feed four. Or, you can get a normal burger and take a picture of the guy who gets the eighteen-ounce one.
“Steak” dogs, are large all-beef hot dogs on slightly denser buns. They come two ways — either drowning in relish and mayonnaise or drowning in chili and cheese. Had we known of the kitchen’s generosity with condiments, we might have opted for the chili version. Once you scrape off some of the mayo and relish, it is quite a nice hot dog — grilled to perfection and spicier than your average all-beef frank.
Being just west of Ore-Ida country, we had to get some tots. They are fried expertly. To our surprise, onion rings are some of the better drive-in rings we’ve had. They have a breadcrumb coating with a well cooked onion that didn’t pull out when bitten.
Being Oregon, the place serves beer (not to your car). Beer, onion rings and a sensibly sized cheeseburger is the way to go.