As anyone who has watched even a small amount of sports and has had to endure the countless commercials for Sonic Drive-In knows, drive-in restaurants are still around in America.
But overall, they are as faded as an old pair of jeans. As rare as video stores. As vintage as pinball machines.
Oh we have drive-thru restaurants. Every fast food chain in the country has one in nearly every city. And then some. But those are not stay-and-eat-in-your-car spots. Instead, they are grab and go places.
But there was a time when drive-in restaurants were a big part of the American culinary scene. They were lifestyle places, where parents took their kids and sex-charged teenagers would hang out after school. They were as American as the hamburger. Some had girls in those 50s pleated skirts on roller skates rolling out to cars to take orders and deliver food.
The 50s-themed TV show Happy Days embraced this part of American culture by having the show’s characters spent much of their leisure time at a fictional drive-in restaurant called Arnold’s, and one was also a focal point of the classic movie American Graffiti.
What Is A Drive-In Restaurant?
A drive-in restaurant is a restaurant in which you drive into, park in the parking lot, oder through a loudspeaker with a menu next to it and wait for someone to bring the food to your car, where you eat it.
The food comes on a tray with little hooks on it, which are supposed to rest securely on a partially-opened driver’s side window. Tho what really happens is that it tilts to the right or left, dumping your food and drinks either on the pavement or your lap.
Anyway, the idea is to pass the food around to others and everyone eats in the car. You can listen to music or whatever and it is, in theory anyway, a good bonding experience for dates, families and friends.
It differs from a drive-thru restaurant – McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, basically any fast-food joint – in that at a drive in you park and at a drive-thru you leave as fast as you can get out of the line.
Where To Find Drive-In Restaurants In The USA
Sonic is about the only drive-in chain still in operation, as most of the survivors are local one-place restaurants. Some of them are: Keller’s Drive-In in Dallas’ Weber’s Drive-in outside of Philadelphia; Cameron’s Lobster House in Brunswick, Maine (most drive-thru menus are burger joints but this one reflects the culinary tastes of its area); Johnny’s Drive-In located in Elvis’ birthplace of Tupelo, Miss.; Burgermeister in Seattle and perhaps the most famous of them all (certainly throughout the South) the greasy-but-good Varsity in Atlanta. The latter has a vry busy indoor counter and seating, too, so it’s really a hybrid.
Drive-In Movie Theaters Are Dying, Too
America had not just drive-in restaurants but drive-in movie theaters, too. Those were great, as anyone who has seen the movie Grease or who has ever been to one can attest to, as they were ideal to take dates to because it’s much easier to make out in a car than in the back of a standard movie theater.
The concept was to drive your car up to a spot next to a little box, which was a small speaker that attached to your partially rolled-down window, much like the tray at a drive-in restaurant. But instead of spilling food, it spilled sound all over the place to the point you could hardly hear the movie.
But heck most – if not all – teenagers cared nothing about the movie. To them it was a chance to make a move on that girl you’ve been eyeing for a while and finally agreed to go on a date with you.
Not that I would know, mind you because by the time I got old enough to see if that tactic actually worked, drive-in movie theaters had given way to the multi-screen, no-personality monsters of the modern era and today all but a handful remain across the country.
That development doesn’t really affect me because as anyone who knows me can tell you, I hardly ever go to a movie theater. I saw one movie all of last year, Top Gun: Maverick, and it had been so long since I’ve been inside a theater, I liked the big recliners more than I did the flick.
But man, it would have been nice to have been a teenager – or heck, a college student or even post-college – at a drive-in theater.
Still it’s nice to reflect back on a country’s culture and it is good that a few places are indeed preserving the past.