Lunch At The Drive-In

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.”

43 thoughts on “Lunch At The Drive-In

  1. I remember our Mom taking us to the A&W for root beer back in the day, they were all over. I’m not sure I loved the drive-in experience, it always seemed to be unsettling. It wasn’t a picnic, and it wasn’t a sit-down restaurant, and you were juggling your food around in the car, where your Dad was yelling at you not to spill anything. I remember the A&W having picnic tables on the property (they always seemed to be at the ege of town) so we just started eating out there.

    Have to say I’ve eaten at the Dog and Suds, but not particulary a good episode. Being raised in Chicago, the Vienna dog was king, whether you had the full “Chicago Dog” or not, so a “chain” drive in dog was NOT going to make the cut. Had to laugh, my dining experiences are similar to you. I love a good steak dinner, which I can ill afford in retirement. I had a pal offer to take me to an excellent steak house on my birthday, but I made her take me to the best Chicago Dog place in town, down near the airport, with Vienna dogs too, and the Chicago tradition of throwing a handful of fries in the paper while they’re wrapping the dog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, you Chicago people and your hot dogs. 🙂 As one who grew up on the Fort Wayne/Detroit orbit, the classic Coney Island dog with mustard, sauce and onions was the preferred variety. The DnS version is quite a bit off from the classic Fort Wayne coney, but I can deal.

      Maybe the secret to enjoying the drive-in experience was the absence of the yelling dad. My dad took us to the A&W every now and then, but he didn’t yell. Having vinyl seats in the cars helped, as any spills would wipe off.

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      • Ha Ha, I think the difference was my dad had the dreaded “Company Car”, which the family was not supposed to utilize in any way, and probably not even look at in bright sunlight!

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  2. You know, I don’t remember ever going to a drive-in, maybe in College, but we walked there and sat on the benches. In Seattle they had a lot of great hamburger / hot dog huts, small place, benches outside to eat, fabulous hamburgers and fries. Root Beer — have not had one for a LONG time. Great idea, summer ending… go to a drive-in.

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  3. What a mouth-watering post!

    Columbus Ohio didn’t have many drive in eateries from the early 80’s to the late ‘oughts, when Sonic opened a few locations. Unfortunately those aren’t near most of our usual travels. When we do go, it’s usually for their ice cream treats.

    About two years ago, Swenson’s Drive In (from the Akron Ohio area) came to town and their first restaurant was right along one of our preferred shopping routes. I can’t vouch for their coney dogs, but their sloppy joes and milkshakes are quite delicious.

    Have a safe and happy Labor Day, everyone!

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  4. Ruling out the pervasive chain in which the name rhymes with “Tonic”, I have been to all of one drive-thru, long, long ago.

    It was an A&W in Cape Girardeau, MO. My mother took my sister and me. It was amazing. Sadly, it is now long gone. The building now on that lot is about eight stories tall and says “Limbaugh & Associates” on it. Yes, it’s the same family you are thinking of.

    Speaking of A&W, there is a sit-down A&W about an hour north of me in the small town of Boonville. Going in looks like 1971. The decor is still brown and orange. In the middle of the dining room is a large brick fireplace with chairs placed around the perimeter of the fireplace for dining. Root beer is served from a barrel up front.

    I suspect there is something in the water in Lafayette for the hot dogs and root beer to taste so good. Lafayette sounds like a little culinary utopia.

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    • I remember A&W going through a big conglomerate phase and their brand being paired with KFC and (I think) Taco Bell for a 3-in-one attempt at satisfying the whole family. Those didn’t stay around long – I’ll bet the kitchen was a nightmare. But the root beer was good.

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  5. Uh-Oh, Rootbeer is going to be another rabbit hole to go down! Altho A&W has been around since 1919, but mostly associated with the drive-in’s. I grew up in Chicago on Dad’s rootbeer (Chicago originated and since the 1930’s), and then when we moved to Milwaukee, it was Grandpa Graf’s rootbeer (Milwaukee originated and since 1873). Sprecher Brewery in Milwaukee was one of the first micro brews to go large, and national, and among their offerings was their own house-brand rootbeer, which get’s mentioned by afficianados for its creamy flavor, and actual “lack” of carbonation. Very low bubble content, which seems to bring out the flavor! I’ll admit to liking IBC as well, but that’s more of a “sweetie”….

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  6. A friend and I frequented an A&W here, sometimes in his car, sometimes in mine. His was a 1968 Beetle, and one wintry night, while sitting waiting for and then eating our burgers, the windshield froze. On the inside that is. Without aid of a defroster, or blower of any kind, we employed the cigarette lighter to attempt to deice the windshield, one small circle at a time. Soon realizing the folly of our ways, we broke out into hysterics that we still laugh about almost 50 years later.

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    • Haha, defrosting with the lighter – hopeless indeed! Like the time I got stuck in a snowbank and tried to dig out with one of those tiny shovels before someone came along to pull me out.

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  7. I can’t believe you still have drive-ins! I do remember the A&W drive-in from when we were kids, not because we ate there very often, but my mother would go there once in awhile and buy a large gallon jug of root beer to take home. The jugs were made of brown glass and were refillable, so they were environmentally ahead of the time. That frosty yeasty sugary taste was wonderful and so much better than A&W root beer in a can.

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    • I think Joni’s got it correct here, I don’t think you could actually buy A&W rootbeer at any place BUT the drive-ins until the early 70’s, hence my expierence as a youth with Dad’s and Grandpa Graf’s. We wouldn’t have shagged out to the edges of town to get A&W directly, we would have just bought what was on offer at the grocery store.

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      • That’s probably true Andy. I don’t really remember eating at A&W, probably because my parents didn’t have much money, so the takeout jug of root beer was a summertime treat.

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    • I have always wanted one of those silvery blues, but have never had one. I was either settling on whatever color a used car happened to be or it was not offered when I was buying new.

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      • If you’re going to be an influencer in your next career, you’re going to have to up your game JP! I saw a dark blue Bentley convertible in traffic yesterday and was it ever sharp. I noticed the Bentley on the rear end, but it was in the next lane and I couldn’t get close enough to it to check it out. The first Bentley I’ve ever seen here, let alone a convertible. I just googled the price – $220,000 Canadian.

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      • Joni, I used to live in Zionsville Indiana, and they actually had a Bentley dealer! (next to the DQ, no less). I remember getting a chuckle one day walking past, when they were running a lease “special”: $2,999. per month for 36 months!

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  8. Your post made me think of a drive-in in our west Los Angeles neighborhood where the cars could approach from 360 degrees of a circle, with the entire parking area covered by a giant disc of the roof. The name is on the tip of my tongue. It’s an iconic structure that may still be around today for historical significance. With four siblings our car was too full to ever go to a drive-in. Sonic has made a great business out of it, but utterly generic compared to the wonderful throwbacks in your post. The detail about pushing the button so the carhop collects the tray is great. And is the drive-in the genesis of the word “carhop”?

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  9. Well JP, you just made me hungry. I’ve never been to a Dog n Suds, but plenty of times I’ve eaten at A&W for a foot long and curly fries or onion rings and a root beer float. That was smart of your mom to use the two bread pans to catch the drippings, because, especially in the case of a coney dog or a Whopper, it would make a whopping mess on the car seat or clothes. I remember my mom and I would be doing errands and stop for fast food and eat it in the car while I had the Pacer, but after getting the 1988 Regal with its burgundy velour seats, I announced “no more salt on the French fries – I don’t want to be sweeping grains of salt off the burgundy seats.” I had similarly announced the demise of ketchup as the Pacer had cream-colored fabric seats. Well, I was no fun was I?

    The seagulls used to terrorize the diners at the local A&W where we went. They’d wait until the carhop delivered your meal and she would use her body as a shield against those birds so you could get your food into the car and balanced in your lap, while you paid. Getting a root beer had to be sans the mug, but in a waxed paper cup instead, so nothing remained on the tray until you deposited your litter and rang the bell for the carhop to return. The seagulls would hover over the long “awning” that covered all the cars, occasionally dive-bombing beneath, hopeful someone would toss a morsel of food to them.

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  10. Ahh, 8-track tapes … that takes me back awhile. The Mopar parts takes me back to my job at the ad agency when I first graduated from college in 1978. I started at Y&R, hoping to work my way up the ladder byt starting as a secretary in the Creative Department. Our major client at the time was Chrysler and we did the local dealer ads, the Mopar Parts ads and the national ads which had the likes of Hal Linden for Newport and Ricardo Montalban (who could forget his buttery soft voice for that buttery soft Corinthian leather?). I even had a Mopar Parts commercial named for me – it was called “Sweet Linda” for a battery that never quit – when the guy wanted to see his girl, he needed a genuine Mopar battery so the car always started.

    P.S. – My father had a 1972 Impala, the same color as this car – brown metallic with a cream vinyl roof.

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      • It is a lot of fun, but we had about 40 people in our Creative Department and one minute they’d “play nice” and get along, then the next minute one would criticize the other’s work and say it was a “dumb idea” and they’d have a fight. It was a fun, but sometimes volatile atmosphere. Those were great ads. My boss worked on those ads and I spoke with him and Hal Linden (Newport) one time in trying to reach Jerry personally, as opposed to having their agents reach him. We also did the “Mean Mary Jean” ads -Judy Strangis was the woman who played Helen on Room 222.

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      • I started out as an advertising photographer in the mid-1970’s, doing work for agencies in Chicago and Milwaukee and working at various studios. I can tell you that I saw a lot of mayhem and people “going over the confrence table” at each other back in the day; behavior that wouldn’t have even been tolerated at corporations back in those years! I started my own studio in 1980 because I didn’t like the way I was being treated myself, but there was so much “decampment” of work to the coasts post the Arab Oil embargo, that by the late 1980’s, it was ridiculous and I ended up managing internal studios for large retail places and controling the in-house staffs and sending work out to freelancers as well; it was also a much more controlled professional environment. Watched a lot of creative suppliers both in Chicago and Milwaukee just slowly “fade out” to nothing.

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