10 classic American drive-in restaurants
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
America's first drive-in restaurant was said to have opened in Dallas in 1921, but these classic eateries really came of age in the 1950s at a time when cars symbolized the nation's post-war economic recovery.
Following years of belt-tightening and rationing, folks were enjoying the freedom of hitting the road in their gas-guzzling Chevy Bel Airs and Ford Fairlanes. Young people in particular relished this period of relative indulgence — downing burgers and root beers at the local A&W with radios blaring out the latest Elvis hits.
Although they've become hard to find, overtaken by more modern restaurants and shifting food tastes, the classic drive-in restaurant remains an iconic slice of Americana, a fading reminder of a simpler time. It's comforting — especially for those of us who grew up in the '50s and '60s — to know that the tradition of paper-hat-clad carhops and roller-skating waitresses wheeling up to your window balancing trays of fast food lives on.
Here are 10 restaurants that are keeping the drive-in dream alive:
1. Birthplace of A&W Root Beer
A bronze plaque set into a sidewalk in Lodi marks the site of Roy W. Allen's first root beer stand founded in 1919. Allen bought his secret formula from an Arizona pharmacist and sold the concoction in a frosty mug for just a nickel.
Prohibition boosted sales, and in 1923 he opened his first A&W drive-in in nearby Sacramento. An A&W near the plaque in Lodi features displays of company memorabilia — and still offers curbside service.
2. Dandy's Drive-in
Nothing much has changed at Dandy's since it opened on Third Street in Bend back in 1968. They're still serving up classic burgers, fries, onion rings and shakes as they have done for decades. And, as always, smiling young women roll out orders on old-fashioned skates.
Dandy’s is always listed at or near the top of Bend's "Best Burger" surveys, so diners often have to wait for one of the drive-in's 18 stalls to open up.
3. Dog House Drive-in
Albuquerque, New Mexico
This ramshackle outpost on Route 66 — featured prominently on the TV series "Breaking Bad" — has been serving up its famous foot-long chile dogs to tourists, truckers and locals alike for more than 60 years. The menu is classic New Mexico road food: signature dogs, but also green-chile cheeseburgers, chili, cheese tater tots, Frito pie and milkshakes.
4. Matt's Place Drive-in
Quite unlike the streamline-moderne style typical of many drive-in restaurants, Matt's opened in 1930 in an ordinary looking two-story frame house converted to serve customers in their cars. So far as anyone knows, it was Montana's first drive-in, and during the intervening 87 years it has become an institution in Butte.
In 2016, Matt's was awarded the James Beard Foundation's "America's Classic Award." Judges said, "Matt's food does the roadside genre proud" and further noted that the restaurant's "masterpiece" is its nut burger, which comes with crushed peanuts and mayonnaise. Regular customers rave about the shakes — made with homemade ice cream.
5. Bobo's Drive-in
A Topeka tradition since 1953, Bobo's features a menu loaded with traditional drive-in favorites: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, corn dogs, pork tenderloin sandwiches, onion rings and homemade chili.
Bobo's was profiled in a 2007 episode of Food Network's "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives." The show's moderator-chef Guy Fieri was high on praise for Bobo's burgers.
6. Top Notch Drive-in
Popularized through its appearances in the films "Dazed and Confused" and "Varsity Blues," Top Notch is even better known to Austin foodies as the place to go for the city's best burgers and fried chicken. Menu favorites here include a variety of charcoal-grilled burgers, fried chicken and onion rings.
Dating to 1971, this classic drive-in maintains a nostalgic, no-frills atmosphere, and owners play up the past with "Hot Rod Drive-in Nights" every first Saturday of the month. These events draw dozens of pre-1971 hot rods and custom cars and a large crowd of lookie-loos.
7. Jerry's Curb Service
Jerry's has been the place to go for burgers and fries for longer than most of Beaver's 4,500 residents can remember — probably because it has been around since 1947. About the only thing that's changed through the decades has been the implementation of a computerized ordering system that allows car hops to forego pencils and pads in favor of hand-held units to speed up the ordering process.
"Old-school good food" is how one customer describes a menu that includes a variety of burgers and sandwiches, including a popular grilled ham and cheese known as a Herbie. Other interesting eats include breaded 'shrooms, hand-cut cheese fries and a steak salad topped with Jerry's zesty (some say adventurous) sauce — a combination of mayo, ketchup, pickle juice and spices.
8. The Varsity
Founded by Georgia Tech dropout Frank Gordy in 1928, the Varsity is not only one of America's oldest drive-ins but also boasts a couple of world records. Iconic in the modern culture of Atlanta and now an empire comprising eight locations in and around the city, the company's flagship North Avenue drive-in, covering two city blocks and capable of serving 600 cars, is the world's largest drive-in restaurant.
It also is responsible for more sales of Coca-Cola than any other single location in the world. Along with all those Cokes, countless burgers, onion rings, fries, shakes and more than two miles of hot dogs are served at the Varsity every day.
9. Beacon Drive-in
Spartanburg, South Carolina
Established in 1946 — and looking every bit its age — the Beacon nonetheless remains one of the hottest drive-in properties in the country. Often cited as a regional landmark and a Carolina tradition, it's America's second largest drive-in restaurant behind Atlanta's Varsity.
It also claims to be the largest single seller of ice tea in the U.S., pouring some 62,500 gallons of the sweet stuff per year — enough to fill 24 tanker trucks. All that tea helps wash down tons of deliciously unhealthy Southern comfort food. Menu staples include chili cheese dogs, hash sandwiches, greasy fries and onion rings, hush puppies, BBQ plates and fried fish.
Ice cream cones are the big draw at Doumar's, and with good reason. The restaurant's founder Abe Doumar invented the now-omnipresent waffle cone back in 1904, along with the machine to make it. The best part of the story is that the exact same machine — the "World's First Cone Machine" — has been reliably turning out cones at Doumar's ever since. They also make the rich, tasty ice cream that tops their cones, named in 2002 by Gourmet magazine as the best ice cream cones in the U.S.
Before indulging in one of Doumar’s famous cones — or its shakes, sundaes or sherbets — guests might want to give the barbecue a try. The restaurant's North Carolina-style BBQ platters and sandwiches helped Doumar's win a James Beard Foundation Award in the "America's Classics" category.
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