If you’re old enough to remember Happy Days and American Graffiti, you’re old enough to feel the nostalgia of the drive-in restaurant. It’s a part of American history that charms us and reminds us of a simpler time when people watched movies at the drive-in, and teenage girls wore poodle skirts and saddle shoes. Conjuring images of uniformed carhops on roller skates delivering greasy burgers and milkshakes is enough to send us on a quest to find used cars for sale in Louisville, KY, and because there’s still a drive-in right in Kentucky (Dizzy Whizz!), it’s a great place to look.
Drive-in restaurants became popular with the advent of the automobile. The two went hand-in-hand. The first drive-in restaurant, Kirby’s Pig Stand in Dallas, Texas, opened its doors – ahem, parking lot – in 1921. Staffed by carhops on roller skates, the restaurant catered to drivers that didn’t need to get out of their cars to eat. The trend caught on, and before long, there were hundreds of drive-in restaurants across America serving families and weary road warriors fast and cheap, then sending them on their way.
Drive-in restaurants fell out of favor after drive-thru restaurants showed up in the 1970s. Today, only one large chain remains. Sonic Drive-In currently operates 3,500 franchised restaurants across the country, using nifty touch screens at each parking spot where hungry drivers can place their order. A Sonic carhop nostalgically travels to-and-from customer vehicles in roller skates, delivering burgers, milkshakes, and mile-high piles of Tots.
We wondered if any mom-and-pop drive-ins still existed and where we could drive our classic car to receive a fatty, delicious quick service meal, delivered by an eager carhop with great balance. Surprisingly, there are still a lot of drive-ins left, and many are still making Best of lists in their region. Here’s our list of the 10 best:
10. Weber’s Drive-In, Pennsauken, NJ
Standing out like a sore thumb along a mundane stretch of Route 38, Pennsauken, New Jersey’s throwback treasure is still serving patrons the old-fashioned way. At Weber’s, you’ll get the steel tray hooked to your window, and a cheerful server will take your order. We recommend the root beer float and taking a while to savor the 1950s-era dining experience.
9. Keller’s Drive-In, Dallas, TX
Named America’s Best Drive-In Restaurant by Thrillist, Keller’s is a Dallas treasure, 51 years young, that was founded by the late Jack Keller, who once worked at America’s first drive-in restaurant, The Pig Stand. Grab a bowl of chili or a burger with one of their famous poppy seed buns. Whatever you choose, both you and your wallet will leave full.
8. Cameron’s Lobster House, Brunswick, ME
Earning the distinction of the only drive-in lobster restaurant in the country, Cameron’s is a Mainer’s staple. Technically it’s not exclusively a drive-in because the restaurant also offers walk-up service and outdoor seating, but since you can get a lobster (pronounced lob-stah) roll and some chowder (chow-dah – you get the idea) delivered to your car, we had to include it. Cameron’s is a downtown Brunswick staple. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week, the restaurant caters to locals looking for an affordable meal or a “wicked good” lobster roll with a side of coleslaw.
6. Swensons Drive-In, Akron, OH
This 14-location Northeast Ohio staple turns 86 this year and shows no signs of stopping. Swensons Drive-In is famous for its Galley Boys and potato teezers. Now, you might be wondering, what the heck are those? The Galley Boy is a double cheeseburg (SIC) smothered in two ‘secret’ sauces and topped with a green olive. We’re not 100% sure what’s in the potato teezers, but we think it involves cheese, potato, and jalapeños…and a lot of grease.
5. Dizzy Whizz, Louisville, KY
What’s a Whizzburger? You’ll have to taste it to believe it. This half-pound double-patty fat bomb is a local favorite, and it’s been Dizzy Whizz’s calling card for the past 60 years. Open from sunup until late evening; you’ll find cheap breakfast, a filling lunch, and even some expansive dinner specials. They even offer pie and ice cream if you have any room left after that Whizzburger goes down.
4. The Fence, Milton, PA
Fried seafood everywhere, served with fries, and delivered right to your car. The Fence reminds us that everything tastes better battered and deep-fried. Try the yummy house-breaded scallops while you gaze over the nearby Susquehanna River, but be sure to check the calendar before you head over – The Fence is only open seasonally, which makes sense. We don’t want the carhops to have to outfit their roller skates with snow tires, after all.
3. Parkette Drive-In, Lexington, KY
Can anyone say fried chicken? Go here, to the beloved Parkette Drive-In Restaurant, for some of the country’s best fried chicken. Even the king of diners himself, Guy Fieri, paid them a visit for his series Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, and with good reason. Get your fried chicken with a side of gravy and choose from dark, white, or mixed for a customized feast that, to borrow a chicken-y phrase, is actually finger-lickin’ good.
2. Rainbow Drive-In, Honolulu, HI
Most of Hawaii is still pretty old school once you get out of the tourist areas. Since 1961, Rainbow Drive-In has embodied old Hawaii with classic Hawaiian plate lunches piled high with rice, Spam and eggs, and succulent BBQ pork. It regularly appears on Best of Oahu lists and continues to serve around 1,000 plate lunches every weekday and over 2,000 on the busy weekends. Spam, anyone?
1. Skyway Drive-In, Fairlawn, OH
Another 50’s diner – opened in 1952, to be exact – Skyway Drive-In is arguably the most famous drive-in restaurant in the greater Ohio region. Featuring burgers with their famous Sky Hi Sauce, Skyway is all about crazy fried sides, like sauerkraut balls and mini corn dogs, but center-of-the-plate belongs to its gourmet burgers. Grab a Sky Hi Combo for $7.49, and you’ll get a signature burger “sandwich,” fries, and a medium drink. Not bad for under $10.
Take A Trip to a Drive-In
We’re crazy about any activity that lets us get behind the wheel and experience the open road and a dash of nostalgia. That’s why drive-in anything is high on our list. In fact, some proprietors are getting clever, combining the drive-in restaurant with the drive-in movie, creating a perfect family-friendly weekend event. Sign us up.
We hope the drive-in restaurant resurfaces as a favorite weekend activity and that mainstream car collecting isn’t too far behind. Both are a part of Americana and the art of caring for a beloved classic or customizing a used car is enhanced by finding destinations where it can be admired and shared. The drive-in restaurant used to be America’s Friday night hangout, where the see-and-be-seen cool crowd joined together after a football game to eat burgers, gossip, and let off a little steam. Those American Graffiti days are all but gone now, but the sentiment remains.
In this day of overpriced fast food and impersonal drive-thru meals, throwing it back to a simpler time makes the scratch marks from the rusty steel tray that hung from my window seem like more of a badge of honor than an annoyance.