Restaurants are still converting into drive-in movie theaters, too.

By Maria Yagoda
June 18, 2020
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As several cities inch toward reopening restaurants, with strict guidelines to limit capacity, many Americans still feel uncomfortable with the idea of dining out. The coronavirus pandemic is by no means behind us, with many reopened areas of the country seeing spikes in cases. Thankfully, there are some ways to dine out that feel significantly less scary than sitting at a dining table, and one of those ways—sitting in your car—is brought to you by the old-fashioned car hop.

Credit: Diane Diederich / Getty Images

When social-distancing guidelines were first put in place, some restaurants (with the space to do so) got creative, opening up their parking lots and morphing into drive-in movie theaters. The car hop, a model of dining where the server brings your food to your car window, is taking off, too. A new study suggests that Sonic Drive-In has become Americans' most preferred fast-food restaurant since mid-March, and other restaurants are adopting the '50s-style service feature for the first time. In New Jersey, Brownstone Pancake Factory has customers park and place their orders from their cars, and then servers bring the dishes out to them on trays that attach to the cars' windows.

"I started seeing last couple weeks, people would order from us and sit in our parking lot eating," owner Bobby Bournias told NBC New York. "So I said hey, why don't we do it like old-school car hop."

In Chester County, Pennsylvania, Happy Day’s Family Bistro pivoted to car hop service; the owner told the Philadelphia Inquirer that conventional takeout and delivery wasn't cutting it.

"We service them, give them a fresh, hot meal, and do everything [we used to], except they’ll be sitting in their seat in their own car,” said owner Mohamed “Mo” Maaty. “The problem with takeout is that you get cold food by the time it gets home. Here, in the parking lot, we can modify food and offer refills. Complete service.”

Many of the restaurants that have converted their parking lots into drive-in movie theaters are doing car-side service. At Houston restaurant The Butler house, they'll even bring wine pairings right to your car window.

Our personal new favorite use of the car parking lot, we must say, is hiding space. In May, Potbelly's began testing designated "Alone Time" parking spots for tired parents to sit in silence and eat their sandwiches.

"If the experiment works," read a press release from the sandwich chain, "Potbelly is considering adding an additional parking space for teens who are tired of watching their parents awkwardly try TikTok dances."