Remembering the drive-in days

It was an era of feeding hungry travelers.
Remembering the drive-in days

Nothing has revolutionized eating like the internal combustion engine. The evolution of automobiles and trucks opened up a whole new world of food. What began as a luxury became indispensable to everyday life. By the 1920s, Americans were on the move for both business and pleasure. New kinds of eateries where you could “come as you are” – luncheonettes, cafeterias, diners and truck stops – sprung up along the road to satiate hungry travelers. Other modern technology – including Formica countertops and stainless steel cutlery, sliced bread and automatic toasters, and electric refrigerators and blenders – changed how and what we ate.

Our country developed an appetite for fast cars and fast food. A new genre of restaurants emerged: the drive-in. It boasted curbside service with fresh-faced waitresses and waiters called “carhops” who took your order and delivered it to your vehicle. Hamburger and barbecue joints and frozen custard and root beer stands became de rigueur. They spawned the chain restaurant, which featured the same brand at multiple locations.

In 1921, A&W became the first franchise root beer operation and opened the first drive-in two years later. The chain is still in business today, and many locations are run by second- or third-generation owners. Over time, several A&Ws flourished in the Madison area, but probably the most enduring was located at 900 S. Park St. For more than three decades it operated during the summer months only, until it was remodeled into a year-round facility in 1971. Today it’s the home of Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que.

Surely the most beloved drive-in in town was the Monona Drive-In situated across from Olbrich Park Beach. It was better known as the “Hungry Hungry Hungry” because of its neon sign, which palpitated the word “hungry.” Besides root beer, it featured sloppy Joes, 21 shrimp in a basket and curly fries. After 55 years and a couple of incarnations, it was torn down in 1994.

Gradually, faster options like drive-thrus and self-service changed the drive-in concept. Two Sonic Drive-Ins operate in Sun Prairie and Middleton (which is temporarily closed), and occasionally one stumbles upon an old-time restaurant where you needn’t leave your car to dine. Worth a road trip in our own state is Ardy and Ed’s in Oshkosh where, come summer, servers still zip around on roller skates to rock and roll worthy of a vintage jukebox. Its orange-and-black paint hints at its origins as an A&W. Though Wayne’s Drive-In in Cedarburg may lack history (it dates back to 1998), it oozes ’50s character and charm. Here, too, carhops dispense the anticipated burgers, fries and old-fashioned soda fountain treats.

For me the drive-in restaurant was more than a place to eat; during high school, it was a friendly place to hang out with my friends. I would cruise the Big Dipper and snarf down food that my mother frowned upon. I could show off my dad’s Cutlass 442 convertible. It was where I first tasted bourbon, sneaked into a big cup of iced Dr. Pepper. As naïve as these memories seem now and as much as my taste in food has changed, the drive-in remains part of who I am.

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.