Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Drive-In Restaurants

Today I was thinking about drive in restaurants. I swear that before the more generic fastfood restaurants (Hardees, Burger King, McDonalds) moved into Moberly in the Seventies, they dominated our eating habits. I'm not sure what the first drive in was. I have read that it was the Pig Stand in Dallas, which opened in 1921. On the other hand I have also seen that claim made for an A & W restaurant which opened in Sacramento. Regardless, they spread throughout the country until, after World War II they were everywhere.

The old A & W restaurant in Moberly is the drive in that I remember best. I recall the building as being circular in design, with parking places for cars arranged around the building. I also remember that A & W's biggest drawing card was its root beer. It was served in mugs, not Styrofoam or paper cups like those used by fast food restaurants today. They served typical drive-in food--hamburgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, French fries. I also remember the restaurant as constantly being busy. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it shut down about 1973. They tore the building down to build a self service gas station. Since then there have been rumours of A & W's return to Moberly, something like the legend that Arthur will return to rule Britain.... For the longest time I thought that A & W must have closed down their restaurant chain, then in my twenties I found an A & W restaurant in the south part of the state. Unfortunately, it was not a drive in.

Another drive-in I remember was Dog 'n' Suds. I especially remember its sign; it featured a dog in a chef's hat hoisting a tray with a mug of root beer and a hot dog on it. Like A & W, Dog 'n' Suds was known for its root beer. And like A & W, the root beer was served in mugs. Unlike A & W, it was also known for its hot dogs (hence the name--Dog 'n' Suds). I seem to recall that the building itself was small and square, with a a canopy extended out over the parking places. Our Dog 'n' Suds lasted into the Eighties before shutting down. After that, the building was used by a car dealership. That seems to have been a common fate for old Dog 'n' Suds restaurants for some reason. Like A & W, I had thought that the chain had closed down and dismissed reports of Dog 'n' Suds restaurants as so many urban legends. But a few years ago I actually saw one. I think it was in Oklahoma.

I only have vague memories of the Frost Top. It was in the south of Moberly, where there wasn't much of anything (there still isn't), so we didn't go to it very often. I seem to recall the building as being small and circular. Like A & W and Dog 'n' Suds it was usually pretty busy. Unfortunately, it also shut down in the Seventies, only to reopen very briefly in the Eighties.

Outside of the old A & W restaurants, I am guessing that the best known drive these days is probably Sonic. I believe our Sonic opened around 1971 or 1972. Oddly enough, however, I don't think I was aware of Sonic until around 1980, probably because we always went to A & W and Dog 'n' Suds. Regardless, our Sonic is still open--the sole surviving drive in restaurant. In fact, they just erected a new building a few years ago. It seems to me that Sonic wants to serve nostalgia along with hamburgers and fries, as they are always playing Fifties and Sixties music on the loud speakers. Unfortunately, it seems to me that they still don't quite capture the feel of the old A & W and Dog 'n' Suds restaurants. Maybe if they served their root beer in mugs...

I am not sure what killed the drive in restaurant. I definitely think that the rise of the fast food restaurant of the sort typified by McDonalds played a role. I'm no expert on business or restaurants, but it seems to me that fast food places would have a lower overhead than drive ins would. They would certainly have no need of carhops. I have to ponder if rising gas prices may have had much to do with the death of so many drive in restaurant chains as well. Think about it. Many of the drive in restaurant's business came from teens cruising "the strip (wherever in your town that may be)," families out on Sunday drives, and so on. With the Seventies, gas prices started to rise. Cruising slowly declines among teens (I'm not even sure kids today know what cruising is). Families stop going for Sunday drives. And, perhaps not coincidentally, drive in chains start dropping like flies.

I suppose I am biased because I grew up with drive in restaurants, but I think America lost something when the drive ins started to close. There is something to be said for having one's food delivered to his or her car, then eating that food in his or her car. It is an experience that is so much more relaxing than waiting in line at McDonalds or even waiting in line in one's car at the McDonald's drive thru. Indeed, to this day I would rather eat at Sonic than go to McDonald's, even if Sonic does fall short of the old A & W and Dog 'n' Suds restaurants I grew up with.


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