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America's Best Drive-Thrus

06/24/2011 10:49 am ET | Updated Sep 16, 2011

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Like motels and Twinkies, the drive-through window is a distinctly American invention. Sure, other countries have embraced the simple pleasure of ordering a meal without so much as unbuckling your seatbelt, but it was America's mid-20th-century convenience-obsessed car culture that gave birth to this now global phenomenon.

The drive-through's origins are in dispute. Some say it was California's beloved In-and-Out Burger in 1948 that first allowed customers to order from the comfort of their front seat. But the Iowa-based restaurant chain Maid-Rite also claims to have opened the very first drive-through window, in Springfield, Ill. And though the mighty McDonald's wouldn't dare pretend to have invented it, they say their drive-through window has more nobler origins: "The first McDonald's drive-thru was created in 1975 near an Arizona military base -- to serve soldiers who weren't permitted to get out of their cars while wearing fatigues."

No matter its origins, the drive-through window really took off in the 1950s, around the same time as that other eat-in-your-car dining phenom: the drive-in restaurant, a.k.a. the carhop. (Think: waitresses on roller skates delivering burgers and shakes to teenagers on awkward dates.) While the drive-in is now kitsch for nostalgic Baby Boomers, the drive-thru is ubiquitous. Not just at restaurants, either. Banks, of course, have offered drive-through service for decades. You'll also find drive-through liquor stores, drive-through dry cleaners, drive-through wedding chapels, even drive-through funeral homes.

But the coolest drive-thrus still serve food. Many use gimmicks to distinguish themselves from the competition. For instance, at Denver's Hot Chick-a-Latté, for example, the baristas are no simple espresso pullers -- they're young, stylish woman who sling java with a side of sass. In La Puente, Ca., The Donut Hole's customers are treated to a truly drive-through experience: Two giant donuts stand majestically over the drive-through entrance and exit.

What's more convenient than a convenience store? A drive-thru where you can buy fresh meat, milk, or chips and dip. At a time when food trucks are the latest culinary craze (they are, arguably, the drive-through window's polar opposite), the classic drive-thru shows no sign of disappearing. After all -- to borrow from Weird Al Yankovic's "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" -- how else can you order your favorite fast food while wearing a pair of bunny slippers?

- Jeff Koyen, The Daily Meal

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America's Best Drive-Thrus

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