12 Classic American Drive-In Restaurants to Visit This Year
No contact, no indoors, just trays piled high with burgers and fries and ice cream.
One of the hottest restaurants in Philadelphia this summer is not in Philadelphia at all, but rather across the Delaware River, in the part of New Jersey that mostly exists to serve the needs of the big city back over the Ben Franklin Bridge.
The trip to Weber’s Drive-In is not far, just ten minutes or so from the Independence Mall in good traffic, transporting you in no time flat to the very different world of Pennsauken Township, one of those suburban in-betweens that, in their time, were exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find a good drive-in.
Times have changed, tastes have changed, but Weber’s, a nearly stand-alone relic of a national chain with roots in Oklahoma, persists, famous for their creamy homemade root beers, made even more divine, particularly on a hot August afternoon, with the addition of vanilla soft serve.
Call me overly cautious or worse, but the only only way I want to eat out this summer is out, literally out, no matter the weather. Give me a walk-up window, curbside service, artfully-scattered outdoor tables, further the better, or give me nothing. That is, unless the indoors we’re talking about is my own car. In 2020, beyond my own home, or a hiking trail, I can think of no more happening and desirable spot. Fortunately, long before most people were even pondering the notion of humans still roaming Earth in the year 2020 (come, oh Great Asteroid, deliver us), some very shrewd restaurateurs took a look at the culture and decided that what we needed was dining in cars, and we needed a lot of that, yes please.
Until about ten minutes ago, the drive-in was essentially on the endangered list, a faded bit of Americana held in highest regard by the sort of American who thinks everything was at its hunky-doriest in the years prior to 1959. You could still find places in the country where the concept continued to thrive. A couple years ago I remember traveling to Akron, Ohio, where two of the most revered drive-ins continue to thrive, loved almost universally by generations of locals.
Never in my wildest would I have imagined we’d be where we are now, and in such short order, too. Carhop service is back, we love it, and we want more—we want to flash our lights and have them come running. No contact, no indoors, just trays piled high with burgers and fries and lots of ice cream and root beer. Who knows when and how this all ends; for God’s sake, let us sit in solitude and eat our feelings, thank you.
What exactly is a drive-in, you may ask? There are entire segments of the country where the idea has all but disappeared, no doubt due to the proliferation of the drive-through, which is a completely different beast altogether—more efficient, surely, but less fun.
A drive-in is essentially the lazy man’s dining-in. It is going out, but on your terms. You pull onto the lot, you flash your lights, a carhop comes running and takes your order, and you kick back and relax, letting it all come to you often on a tray that can be fixed, rather cleverly, right to the windowsill. Voilà—fine dining, mid-century American style.
Hot dogs, burgers, cheesesteaks, piles of onion rings, milkshakes, plenty of French fries course—very rarely will you find the menu unfamiliar or challenging; the comfort is the point, another reason this was the perfect year for the idea to come roaring back. Here are just a few of our favorites.
Keller’s Drive-In (Dallas, TX)
Frosty Shiner Bocks and cheap cheeseburgers on poppy seed rolls (you want, like everyone else, the No. 5) still reel in the crowds fifty-plus years on, in the city said to have created America’s first drive-thru back in the 1920s.
Skyway (Akron, OH)
Figures the city once widely known as the Rubber Capital of the World would have taken a shine to dining out on four wheels. Skyway is the perfect introduction to Akron’s wonderful world of drive-in dining; burgers doused in the house Mile Hi sauce are very much a thing, as are the housemade chili and onion rings.
Cameron’s Lobster House (Brunswick, ME)
Why stand in line at the lobster pound with all of the people who said they quarantined to come to Maine this summer but totally didn’t, when you can just hang in your car and have everything come to you? Start with the lobster bisque, served with a claw on top.
Johnnie’s Drive-In (Tupelo, MS)
Make like a young Elvis Presley—the rock and roll legend grew up in Tupelo—and head here for a dough burger, a Mississippi hard-times tradition (stretching the beef with grain filler) that persists to this day.
The Fence (Milton, PA)
House-breaded scallops and fresh-cut fries cooked in peanut oil—along with one hell of a tasty fish sandwich—are the stars at this seafood-forward spot in the dead-center of Pennsylvania.
Snow White Drive In (Lebanon, TN)
One of the only places we can think of that will bring a proper meat and three plate to your car—that and a healthy portion of disco fries, that classic American version of poutine.
Burgermaster (Seattle, WA)
Seattle’s most iconic drive-in doesn’t do carhop service anymore (not mad at you, Dick’s, just saying), but the runner-up most definitely does; they’ve been at it since 1952, and their burgers, while not as cheap as their competitor, are pretty damn tasty.
Doumar’s (Norfolk, VA)
Syrian immigrant Abe Doumar—esteemed inventor of the waffle cone—launched an ice cream empire over a century ago. Today, the original spot remains a destination for cones, for chopped pork sandwiches, baked ham on toast, and burgers made with house-ground beef.
Storm’s (Lampasas, TX)
Johnnie’s back home in Tupelo must have left a mark, because when Elvis was stationed at nearby Fort Hood, he’d often make the trip into Lampasas for strawberry shakes at this Texas institution, with three locations serving up 100% Texas beef burgers, Frito pies, and fresh-cut fries.
The Varsity (Atlanta, GA)
The original location of one of the country’s most iconic drive-in restaurants also happens to be the largest one in the world, with the capability to serve hundreds of cars at a time.
Superdawg (Chicago, IL)
One of the tastiest Chicago dogs—you know the ones, with an entire fixins’ bar on top, except no ketchup, don’t even ask—requires no real effort, beyond driving up and barking your order (nicely) into your personal speaker.
Swensons Drive-In (Akron, OH)
Akron’s other eat-in-your-car institution, this one with multiple locations and an even quirkier menu of retro-fab drinks (try the phosphates) and snacks (jalapenõ-spiced cheesy potato teezers). The Galley Boy, a double cheeseburger served with not one, but two special sauces and served with Spanish olives is a welcome visitor from another era.