As readers hereabouts are aware, I am quite blue-collar in my dining preferences. While I have no problems with a filet mignon and a glass of scotch in a pricey steakhouse, I can be just as excited about a good burger and (especially) nicely-done french fries. But beyond the food itself, the dining experience adds to any meal and there is no dining experience quite like being served in your car.
Growing up in the Midwestern U.S. in the 1960s it was hard to escape the phenomenon of the drive-in restaurant. Back then there were plenty of little family-owned places. The one closest to our house was the Dairy Delight, which served up ice cream to follow the foot-long hot dogs they served along Coliseum Boulevard in Fort Wayne. My mother had two bread-baking pans that may have each been responsible for a single loaf of fresh-baked bread, but were used quite frequently for putting in kids’ laps to keep food spillage and drippage off of our clothes and the car’s seats.
Many drive-ins of the era were associated with root beer brands like A&W, B-K and Dog n Suds. We had a Dog n Suds that was a little farther away but was also a favorite. When staying with Dad there was an A&W in the small town near where he lived. I like a good root beer, but those places seemed to have the secret to an extra-creamy drink served up in a frosted glass mug.
In college there was Burkie’s Drive-In in Muncie, Indiana (which may or may not still be in business, I am not sure). Burkies was not so much about root beer or ice cream, but was a burgers/hot dogs/tenderloin/onion rings kind of place that was near enough to campus that it got a mix of locals and students. Some of my most memorable drive-in moments were at Burkies – like the time an older couple was parked across from us with a tray hung on the car window. It was chilly and the man started to roll up his window after the car hop brought the tray of food. Unfortunately, it was a highly curved side window and I watched the tray tilt more and more the farther that window went up. Which caused the beverage in the tall paper cup to slowly slide down the tilted tray towards the car window. The edge of the tray stopped the bottom of the cup but the top had some extra momentum and dumped its contents through the open part of the window and onto the man’s lap. As a friend used to say, he was more surprised than pleased.
Burkies was also the place where one of the resident birds (a drive-in fixture) landed on the hood of my car, relieved himself, then flew away. My roommate Dan almost made a similar mess inside the car from laughing so hard. The little Plymouth Scamp (whose story was shared here last week) got no respect.
I enjoyed a refresher on this increasingly rare treat recently. I had to be in court in Tippecanoe County, which is about an hour away from my office. Lafayette is the small Indiana city that serves as the county seat, but more importantly, it is the place that retains one of the few remaining locations of the Dog n Suds. A 2016 article in the local paper (link here) informs me that it has been open since 1956. I did not need a newspaper article to tell me that it remains popular during the warm-weather months when it is open.
Happily, the hearing on my client’s case concluded at around lunchtime, a perfect excuse to hit The Suds. I made my way there and found one of the few open parking places where the menu and ordering speaker was on the driver’s side. I don’t get there often so the menu always takes me a moment. I perused the choices, then ordered the same thing I always do – a foot long coney dog, fries and a root beer.
I don’t know what it is about the hot dogs at these old drive-ins, but they are so different from the hot dogs I see everywhere else. I am not usually a hot dog fan (when ordering from a menu) but I choose almost nothing else at a drive-in. Especially when a foot-long is on the menu. Mmmm, the dog was hot and covered with a meaty and slightly sweet sauce that made me wish for one of Mom’s bread pans in my lap. Extra caution allowed me to finish my treat without leaving clues on my dress shirt or necktie. And who doesn’t love the old-style crinkle-cut fries – especially when they come out hot and crispy.
The weather was hot but not terrible, and there was a breeze that helped. That environment undoubtedly improved the taste of the big frosted glass mug of the delicious root beer that creates the little icy crust that covers the contents and comes with the first few sips. It is places like this that make me crave root beer in cans so seldom. But then, and all too soon, my delicious little meal-from-the-past was over and I reluctantly flicked the switch for the light to signal the car hop that I was finished and to retrieve the tray from my window.
I did a little looking and am sad to see that Dog n Suds has dwindled from over 600 locations in its heyday to around a dozen now, with two of them in the Lafayette area. I remember them going on a growth push around 20 years ago when location with an indoor dining option version opened near our home in the Indianapolis area. We took the kids a few times and it was fun, ordering from the little speaker at the table. But as fast as the growth bloomed, it quickly withered and they are back to some stalwart holdouts like the fine folks in Lafayette who keep bringing in the customers. And it is easy to see how, given the quick, friendly service and the well-prepared menu items.
Maybe there is something in the water in Lafayette, because that city is also the home of one of only two remaining locations that features XXX brand root beer. No, not that kind of XXX, but the kind that was a root beer brand back in 1929 when the place first opened there. Actually they call it “Triple XXX” – but isn’t that kind of triple-triple X? Non-X? Tres-Tres Equis? And the name is appropriate, given that it was originated by the Galveston Brewing Company shortly before prohibition took hold. Anyway the Lafayette Triple XXX is another holdout from modernity, with the only other Triple XXX being found in Issaquah, WA).
We are about to embark on another Labor Day weekend, which traditionally marks the end of the summer season. If there is an operating drive-in local to you, now is the time to get out there for a frosted mug of root beer to wash down the drive-in fare of your choice before their season comes to a close. Hmmmm – I wonder if Marianne would be up for a combination road trip/date night to The Suds this weekend?
[Sign photos from roadarch.com; Dog n Suds photos from Tripadvisor.com]
COAL Update: A car that could have inspired a pretty good blues lyric: “My Chrysler’s a high class beauty, treats me oh so mean.”