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The Daily Meal


10 Classic American Drive-In Restaurants

Posted: 09/06/11 10:52 AM ET

It's hard to imagine, but if common wisdom is to be believed, the drive-in restaurant precedes McDonald's by about 19 years. See, the first McDonald's Bar-B-Que restaurant opened in San Bernadino, Calif., in 1940 with the prototypical carhop service that characterized drive-ins since the first one (supposedly), Kirby's Pig Stand opened in Dallas, Texas, in 1921. Of course, like most surviving drive-in prototypes, McDonald's has long gone from drive-in to drive-thru. Gone mostly, are classic round drive-ins designed by architects like Wayne McAllister, and their carhops. But there are places that keep the drive-in restaurant tradition alive.

Take for instance All America Drive In on Long Island, which Phillip Vultaggio opened in 1963 -- it has been making believers out of Massapequans ever since. Built in the style of '50s fast food joints, All American is basically a glass-enclosed counter and kitchen in the middle of a huge parking lot. This is a drive-in not a drive-thru, as Iole Marshall, Mr. Vultaggio's granddaughter, noted, "A drive-thru is with a window where you order. A drive-in you pull up to with your car."

It's refreshing and comforting to know places like All American don't just survive, but thrive. Even more rare though are drive-ins with curbside service. But the tradition of paper hat-clad carhops and roller-skating waitresses taking orders and rolling up to your window balancing trays of fast food does live on. Take The Varsity, in Atlanta for instance -- this drive-in pilgrimage for fast food mavens has been doing its thing since 1928. Any time you get a hankering for a greasy cheeseburger and onion rings, you know you can pull right into the lot, chat with a friendly carhop, and have your food brought to you.

From Spartanburg, South Carolina's Beacon Drive-In and the Sycamore Drive-In in Bethel, Conn., to  and Frisco's in Long Beach, Calif., there are more of these classics left than you might think. Wherever they are across the country, this list of America's great drive-in restaurants adheres to what you could argue, for all civilization's progress, is still the ultimate in roadside eating: climate control (windows and AC), your choice of entertainment (radio, etc.), and your favorite guilty pleasures served to you by carhops.

- Arthur Bovino, The Daily Meal

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  • Beacon Drive-In (Spartanburg, SC)

    Beacon Drive-In opened in 1946, but there's still curb service bringing out typical fast-food fare -- <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>cheeseburgers and chili cheeseburgers</strong></a> -- as well as barbeque (hash, "outside chop pork," sliced beef, and "low country"), seafood (perch, catfish, and flounder), and chicken. Sandwiches include the conventional (BLT, bologna, club, and turkey) and less common items like fried ham or banana. In 1999, the drive-in expanded to included a <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>Dairy Bar</strong></a>, an ice cream counter serving more than 20 flavors. <em>Related:</em> <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>The Daily Meal's All-American Summer Menu</strong></a> <strong>CORRECTION:</strong> An earlier version of this story featured a photo of a different Beacon's Drive-In, rather than the restaurant in Spartanburg.

  • Wayne's Drive Inn (Lawton, OK)

    In 1950, Wayne Abshere opened Wayne's Burger Bar in an alley behind a service station in Lawton, Okla. According to the restaurant's site, Abshere started with a staff of two (he and his wife). In the 60's, Wayne's expanded. A new building was built behind the old one. One night, the old one was closed. With it went Wayne's counter seating. With the new place came car service and carhops. Abshere eventually sold Wayne's to his sons, but the restaurant continues car service. The menu features typical things: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and chili cheeseburgers. But you can also find sandwiches with barbeque beef and fish. The most amusing menu item is the "Sissy Cheeseburger," which includes mayo, lettuce, and tomato. <em>Related:</em> <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>Make Your Own Epic Burger Adventure</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Yelp/Bobby H.

  • Arnold's "Fabulous Fifties" Drive-In (Decatur, Ind.)

    Lori Collier, the current owner of Arnold's "Fabulous Fifties" Drive-In, took over the building from her grandparents, who ran a Penguin Point carhop restaurant there. She changed the menu, but the restaurant's carhop tradition lives on, at least during fair weather. There's a long menu that includes: the Elvis' P.B. & Banana, Fonzie's Fried Bologna, steakburgers served in a a variety of ways (including breaded or with slaw), chicken, hot dogs, and old-fashioned fountain service. <em>Related:</em> <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>Chefs' Choice: Junk Food Slideshow</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Yelp/Ian W.

  • Sycamore Drive-In (Bethel, Conn.)

    Bethel's Sycamore Drive-In hasn't been owned by the same folks since it first opened, but it has been run continually since 1948. And the original owners did hand down recipes for the joint's "French-style" steakburgers and <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>homemade root beer</strong></a>. As for curb service, you just pull in and park, turn on and flash your lights, and a carhop will come right up to your car to take your order. The Sycamore's "final answer to the burger" is their Dagwood Burger: five ouces of ground steak, a slice of American cheese, mustard, ketchup, picklse, onions, tomato slices, lettuce, and mayo. If that's not enough, you can top it with extras like chili, fried onions and peppers. <em>Related:</em> <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>10 Best Athlete-Owned Restaurants Slideshow</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Sycamore Drive-In

  • Frisco's (Long Beach, Calif.)

    Married couple Takis and Joanne Frisco Stathoulis opened their first 1950's-style diner in 1982. There are now two, one in Long Beach, another in the City of Industry. The menu is the typical diner situation, a list of everything including pizzas, burgers, ribs, sandwiches, salads, and more. While Frisco's doesn't have the storied history that some of the classic drive-in restaurants on this lists do, its dedication to the genre garners it a spot on this list. Afterall, as Ms. Stathoulis boasted, not only do they have <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>curbside service</strong></a>, but their carhops sing and dance. <em>Related:</em> <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>Randy's Donuts (Los Angeles)</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Frisco's

  • The Varsity (Atlanta, Ga.)

    You can go inside the <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>the storied Varsity in Atlanta</strong></a>, but why would you when the friendly carhop wants to chat you up while taking your order? This place is a classic -- the original opened in 1928. The Varsity claims their downtown joint is the world's largest drive-in. With two acres of space that "can accommodate 600 cars and over 800 people inside," it's hard to argue. They say when the Yellowjackets play at home, more than 30,000 people visit. There are <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>beautiful, brown, thick-cut, juicy onion rings with crispy yet pliable, fall-away exteriors</strong></a>. The chocolate shake is kind of icy, really good if you like gelato. And the chili cheese slaw dog is juicy, and covered with fine chili and finely diced slaw. Time to perch that tray on the window and lay out a banquet of fast food on the dashboard. <em>Related:</em> <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>Origins of Iconic Sports Foods Slideshow</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Arthur Bovino

  • Circus Drive-In Restaurant (Wall, N.J.)

    At Circus Drive-In (established in 1954), the theme doesn't end with the name or motto, <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>"I'm with the clown!"</strong></a> There's a checkered roof (for dine-in service) and covered parking under which drivers can wait for curbside service. The menu has the expected chili-cheese-mozzarella-nacho-burger fare. There's also a "Sandwich Parade" menu with staples like grilled cheese and pizza bagels, and funny-named specials on garlic bread like Monkey's Uncle (hot roast beef and melted Swiss) and Bareback Betsy ("topless" chicken with mushrooms, onions, peppers, mozzarella, and Cheddar). But there's more: steaks, softshell crab, a lobster roll, and dishes named for circus performers from the Lion-tamer and the Tiger Tail Steak, to the Strong Man, the Siamese Twin Burger, and the Big Ape. <em>Related:</em> <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>5 Favorite Drive-Thru Pranks</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Flickr/Sister72

  • Darie-ette Drive-In (Saint Paul, Minn.)

    Darie-ette Drive-In in Saint Paul isn't open year-round, but its parking lot fills up fast when it opens in spring. Each of the 30 spots has a menu and two-way speaker for ordering food, which is brought over by a waitress when it's ready. <br><br> Hamburgers, steak sandwich, and chicken fillet, round out the classic drive-in fare, but <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>an Italian-American influence is evident as well</strong></a>: The menu options include: pasta salad, spaghetti or rigatoni topped with Dari-ette's "famous sauce," the 'Italiano' aka the the Hot Dago, a meatball sandwich, an Italian chicken sandwich, and an Italian club. <em>Related:</em> <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>10 Chain Restaurants Worth Visiting Slideshow</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Facebook/Darie-ette

  • Rudy's Drive-In (La Crosse, Wis.)

    A&W did much to creating <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>the culture of roadside soda and burger joints</strong></a>, so it's not surprising that franchisees and employees went on to open their own places. So it is with Rudy's Drive In. According to the Rudy's website, "Grandpa (Wm.) Rudy opened his first A&W Root Beer stand in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin in 1933." Just four years later, he bought an existing root beer stand, then opened others in 1938, 1939, 1940, and 1966, the last being the surviving drive-in owned and operated by his family, still with curbside service. Fare includes chili dogs, pizza burgers, <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>jalapeño cheddar curds</strong></a>, and the most notable sandwich, the Monster Burger -- a triple burger with double cheese, lettuce, tomato, and "our special sauce." <em>Related:</em> <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>Sandwich of the Week: Burgers, Shakes & Fries</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Yelp/William S.

  • Ruby's Five Points Drive-In (Anaheim, Calif.)

    Ruby's Drive-In opened just a little more than a year ago just two miles from <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>Disneyland</strong></a>, so it's not classic in the sense of it having been around forever, but the place seems to have the spirit down right. As you can see firsthand, courtesy of the Fast Food Maven, carhops deliver food on skates, balancing trays of shakes, fries, and burgers to up to 12 cars at a time. <em>Related:</em> <a href="" target="_hplink"><strong>20 Most Popular Fast Food Restaurants on Facebook Slideshow</strong></a> <em>Photo Credit:</em> © Sandy Toes and Popsicles


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