This may come as a shock to those Treasure Valley citizens who may have never eaten a hamburger from a place that doesn't have its own string of television commercials, but before there was Sonic and Carl's Jr., before there was Jack in the Box or Wendy's or Burger King or even that joint with the golden arches ... there were burgers.
Oh my ... glistening, luscious burgers, for which the faithful would park in an asphalt lot on a summer's night, watching the flying bugs' aerial circus perform around the yellow lights, waiting for a teenager to hop up and take their orders. Never—not once in the half-century that has passed since those un-jaded drive-in jaunts—has this writer had a meal that satisfied his anticipation with more completeness than those first, glistening, luscious burgers.
To most of the postwar generation, it's likely that our first experience with commercially prepared food came at one of these roadside eateries, with Dad handing out the goodies from the window tray and Mom handing out warnings of the consequences should you spill the catsup cup on the upholstery. Like knotty-pine motels, full-service gas stations and outdoor movie screens, the eat-in-your-automobile establishments arose from the dust and fields that flanked U.S. highways and state routes, placed there to accommodate a nation bewitched by Detroit steel on Akron rubber.
Fortunately, we needn't rely solely on the afterglow of nostalgia to recapture those pre-chain delights. My intention is to identify those places that were born during (or before) the happiest days of drive-ins, and I apologize if I've overlooked any establishments that deserve to be included. The limits of print space constrain me to Boise and Meridian—which isn't to say there aren't drive-ins in neighboring towns that deserve not only our attention, but our patronage.
The ubiquitous joints with the golden arches (not to mention the horde of imitators that followed them into every nook and cranny of America) may have edged out most of the locally owned competition, but not all. Herein, I will conduct burger aficionados on a tour of area drive-ins that have weathered the franchise storms, stood against a hail of corporate patties and industrialized fries, and survived the devastation of whirlwind service and dollar-menu come-ons.
BIG BUN drive in
It is without doubt a "big bun." Six ... maybe seven inches across, with a patty to match. I watch Tom grill the meat, watch it turn from red to gray to dark chocolate brown. On top of the ground beef go two slices of ham, then the vegetables—a handful of lettuce, the tomato. "You like onions?" Tom asks. I sure do, and he throws on a red onion—that kind with the lilac-colored outer skin, the kind from which you can actually feel the sweet juice spurt when you crunch down. But it's the sauce that makes the burger. Tantalizingly tangy? Subtly sweet? I consider asking Tom what he puts in his sauce, but it would be unfair to put him on the spot like that. This formula was handed down from his parents. Every family should have a secret or two.
Like most of the other early drive-ins, the Big Bun went up (in 1955) on what was then the fringes of the city, just that side of the town ... just this side of the farms. Today, it's well within Boise's frantic traffic zone, and from its second-bench perch west to Meridian, there are few farms left.
"We've had our ups and downs," says Tom Randel. "When my dad first got into it, it was about the only place up here. We had a lot of business from Borah High School kids when the lunch hours were longer. They aren't anymore. The business from the kids is always important, but not as important."
The Randel family bought The Big Bun in 1960. When Tom was but a sprout, he'd sit on the counter and watch cars and customers through the plate glass as his parents scribbled orders. He and his brother Bob became partners in the business in '84, and then eight years ago, Tom bought Bob out. While he answers my questions, his sister Sue is chopping lettuce and slicing tomatoes. Should you wonder why the menu carries such enigmatically named entrees as the "Baldy Bob," the "Cafferty Special" and the "Lopez Burger," you need look no further for an answer than Tom's family and friends.
The Big Bun has added to the menu over the years—lighter items, items for the calorie-concerned—but everything on the menu in 1960 is still there in 2008. Tom continues: "We make our own finger steaks, our own halibut, our own sauces. We do a lot of things ourselves because we just feel we can do better."
Still, it's so easy to whiz by such an unimposing place on your way to the glossy big-name outlet up the street. After all, there has never been a 30-second spot for the Big Bun during the Super Bowl. No one has ever strolled down the street whistling a "Big Bun" jingle. "When you have four or five stores, it's easier to put money into advertising," says Tom. "But when you're advertising for one place, the cost really increases. Word of mouth is very important.
"We have a lady who's come to the Big Bun for as long as I've been working here and gets a cherry Dr. Pepper every time. Another lady ... she passed away recently ... we know her family ... one of her grandchildren has worked for us off and on for 15 years ... and she would come up every day and order either a halibut dinner or a small hot dog. I could go on and on [about our regulars]. God bless 'em, you have to keep them happy."
5816 Overland Road—open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on weekends). 208-375-5361.
GOLDEN WHEEL drive-in
While plotting out this article, I commit myself to picking that burger which best represents, either in name or spirit, the establishment, and describing the experience of eating it. At the Golden Wheel, I choose the Golden Wheel Burger. In its natural state, it comes as a combo meal, with a choice of fries or tater tots, and a drink. I pass on the combo. Life is complicated enough without cluttering it up with combinations. It is the essence ... the very heart ... the raison d'etre of vintage drive-ins I seek, and such truth won't be found at the bottom of a waxed paper cup of Pepsi or under a tangle of fries. Incidentally, the Golden Wheel Burger is very good ... not that I ever doubted it would be.
Cheri Desaro believes the Golden Wheel opened in 1955, but she can't be entirely sure. (To one thing this Meridian writer can personally testify: the Golden Wheel was in the area well before the joint with the golden arches. As a teenager, I used to stop there for a mid-Boise-to-home nosh whenever I felt I couldn't make it without further nourishment.)
The Desaro family purchased it in '77, and Cheri spent most of her youth working there. "It was fun. I wish our daughter could experience it too. My family, we all grew up there ... We would sit around after work and laugh about something that happened that day. Then we'd go to bed, get up and do it again the next day."
For the past 11 years, the business has been in the hands of Cheri and her partner, Jill Erdley. The location between Meridian and Boise is experiencing some of the most intense and rapid growth in the Treasure Valley, and the Golden Wheel is threatened with becoming lost among the car dealerships, the rows of town houses, the never-ending development that has made Fairview Avenue. the busiest slap-dash in all of Idaho. Barely a block down the road, the newest chain to invade the Boise Valley (the Zip Drive-In) has recently opened up shop. None of this seems to worry Cheri and Jill.
"You can't compete with their dollar menus and the way they price their food," Cheri says. "They buy it in such bulk. In order for us to be in business as long as we have, you have to give quality ... We buy everything that we can possibly buy top of the line.
"We use the same mayonnaise we've used since 1977. We use the same catsup we've used since 1977. We're very particular about those things or else our taste, our flavor, would be changed."
Of all the drive-ins covered herein, The Golden Wheel is the only one with an inside dining area, which provides Jill and Cheri with the wall space to hang the pictures of their truest, bluest patrons. One such portrait is of a family that once lived in Ada County but moved to Ontario, Ore. They still drive back, and regularly, for their Golden Wheel fix.
"We're very thankful to our loyal customers. If it weren't for them, we wouldn't have what we have."
11100 Fairview Ave.—open 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. (not open on Sundays). 208-375-4262.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must say here that Hal won't let me pay for my "Hungry Boy" (another double patty, double cheese, tasty ham, bacon, tomato and enough lettuce to keep a rabbit happy.) I have bust in on him an hour before opening time, asked him a bunch of ignorant questions about his business, gotten him to turn on his grill so I could get myself his biggest burger, and then he won't take my money. I say, "Sure I'm gonna pay for it," and he says, "Nope ... 's on me. I'm just glad someone is giving these old places a little attention." I say, "Yeah, but ..." and he says, "No," again. I say, " ... but ..." and he says, "No way." It is rapidly approaching that point where one of us is going to get mad. So I give in. "But," I tell him as I leave, " ... just because I'm getting this huge, delicious, freshly cooked burger for nothing, that doesn't mean I'm going to give you any special consideration. You know, like, that I'm going to make a big deal out of how huge, delicious and freshly cooked this burger is. That would be unethical."
Above the "Hawkins Pac-Out" lettering on the sign is a big-eyed, buffed-up cartoon burger, flexing enormous biceps. It's as though he's saying, "Ain't no Big Mac gonna push me around." And he's right, if Hal Zimmerman is correct in his assessment of the situation.
"The market for independent drive-ins is as good or better than it ever has been. People seek out independent restaurants. I meet people from out of town who want to know where to eat, but they don't want to go to a chain because they've been to the same place in their hometown. So there's still a great need for independent restaurants. The difficulty is in the ability to compete on the cost of doing business. The chains can get a discount from distributors while the independents pay the full ticket. The ability to buy in order to keep your prices right is more critical than ever. Just in the last 18 months, the cost of doing business has risen at a rate faster than I've seen in 40 years."
That's how long Zimmerman has been in the restaurant biz—40 years. He and his wife, Janie, bought the Pac-Out in 1994.
I ask if they have adapted their menu to current trends. "For us to try to become something we're not, it dilutes what we are. We just try to make quality burgers, in great portions, at a reasonable price, and do the best we can. We don't precook. There are no heat lamps. We cook everything to order ... You get what you pay for."
Earl Hawkins built the Pac-Out in 1958. His family went on to establish the Red Steer chain that satisfied much of the Boise area's taste for burgers throughout the '60s and '70s. Even the Pac-Out spent time as a Red Steer Drive-in.
Hal relishes the history of his place. "There's hardly a person I run into who hasn't been here in the parking lot at one time or the other, in high school, at pep rallies, car rallies, hanging out ... just cruising.
"Ladies on vacation come by. They bring their families, grandkids, and they say, 'Yeah, I used to work there,' and they're, you know, 50 ... 60 years old. This was the hangout in the North End."
As to the future, are there any little Zimmermans itching to take over the store?
"Our boys are not in the restaurant business. When we purchased this from the Hawkins family, that was the end of their era. And when we decide to get out, I don't see my boys taking it over.
"I think the public wants the independents to survive. But when current owners step aside, there's nobody to replace them. One by one, the old drive-ins finally die out."
2315 Bogus Basin Road—open 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. summer hours). 208-338-9627.
Hungry Onion drive-in
The "Big Hungry:" First impression, first bite, is the pickle. Does that make sense, that a pickle can cut through the ganged-up flavors of a quarter-pound of ground beef, a hefty slab of ham and a slice of hot cheese? I guess it does if it's a good-enough pickle. I'll bet there's never been a pickle that good in any burger you get from one of those yellow-arches joints. Come to think of it, I've hardly even noticed the pickles in those yellow-arches burgers. They're there, I know. I've seen 'em. But they must be shy.
In smaller towns—isolated towns—drive-ins often became the center of a community's social life, particularly for the young.
"We still get some kids," Pam Haws says, "but not like we used to. Oh m' gosh, they used to park back there (behind the drive-in) and stay forever. It's not like that anymore. It used to be so sweet and innocent and just a lot of fun."
(More full disclosure: The Hungry Onion was a teenage haunt of mine. It's entirely possible that the very first time I was alone behind the wheel was on a Hungry Onion jump. I watched many a bug bang their heads on those yellow lights on many a summer night, and I can personally testify that not everything that happened in that parking lot was so sweet and innocent.)
Pam is perky proof that the family ties of drive-in culture extend beyond who owns the place. She's car-hopped at Hungry Onion off and on since 1970. Her aunt managed the Meridian store for 20 years. Her mother, two cousins, three sisters, and all of her children have worked there.
Sandy Gingrich manages and co-owns the Hungry Onion along with the rest of her family. Her dad and uncle bought it in 1962, a few years after it opened. The menu has remained virtually unchanged in the 46 years the Gingrich family has owned it, and like the owners of every other drive-in included, she is proud of what they accomplish themselves.
"We make our own onion rings, we make our own tartar sauce ... if it's not broke, don't fix it," Gingrich said.
"Once people go to those other places and then come here, they see the quality that we have. The food's better, so they just keep coming back. There are some customers that drive up and just wave. We know what they want."
In two years, if municipal planning proceeds as intended, Meridian's downtown core will convert to a one-way grid. Along with other small business owners along the Main Street strip, the Gingrichs tried to fight it, but lost.
So has Sandy or her family ever been tempted to give up and sell out?
"There are days when you want to just wring your neck and throw your hands up," she said. "But in the long run, no. Not as long as we have someone in the family to run it. I'm going to train my niece, so the next generation will be taking over this summer."
334 N. Main, Meridian—open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.) 208-888-0051.
I go for the Giant Burger. It has three patties. A half-pound of hamburger. They sell one there with four patties, too—the Kaady Burger—but I figure three's enough. I'm not out to get into the Guiness World Book or nothing like that. I take it back to Meridian so I can eat it in front of the television. It's Sunday so my wife is home, and I make the mistake of leaving the burger, still warm after the trip, on the kitchen counter while I go downstairs to do something. The next thing you know, she comes down and announces, "Now that's a good hamburger!" My heart races, and it has nothing to do with the quantity of ground beef I've ingested of late. "You didn't eat my Giant Burger ,did you?" I ask, wondering at the same time if there are any divorce lawyers who work on Sundays. Turns out, she only took a couple of bites. I calculate I still get a good two and a half patties out of the deal.
"I've thought about putting up a sign out next to the road that says 'If you're on a diet, just keep on driving,'" laughs Doug Garton, who bought the Fanci-Freez three years ago. He's remodeled the place extensively, from top to bottom, from out to in, from the equipment to the paint on the walls. With all the trim new landscaping, the bright new colors and the sparkling new deck furniture, his establishment is now the freshest-looking among those covered in this survey. Ironic, considering it was built at least eight years before the next-oldest place.
"Nineteen-forty-seven ... that's what I was told," he says. "And I've had 80-year-old customers tell me they've been coming here since they were young."
As Doug tells it, the Fanci-Freez was strictly an ice cream parlor for almost three decades, until sometime in the mid-'70s when a previous owner added a grill and expanded the choices to include more than just desserts. Doug and his manager/daughter, Meagan Bauer, have added "value meals" —(those combinations that take the work out of deciding what to eat with the sandwich)—but other than that, they've left the menu intact.
"We get a lot of people from the local businesses," Doug says. "Albertsons, Idaho Power ... Dirk Kempthorne comes here for lunch when he's in town."
Being within an easy walk of Boise High—three blocks away—makes it a busy lunch hour for the Fanci Freez when school is in session. I ask Meagan how the time constraints of a high school schedule allow the kids to get there and back before the bell rings. "They call ahead and put in their orders on their way here," she explains. You know ... cell phones."
Doug intends to hand over the place his daughter eventually. At age 22, Meagan could conceivably be found at the Fanci Freez throughout its next 60 years.
1402 W. State—open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Saturdays: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sundays: Noon to 8 p.m.), 208-344-8661.
WESTSIDE DRIVE IN
No way is the Daddy-o Burger a complete meal. Uh-uh, it's at least four complete meals. Out of what goes into one Daddy-o, you could make a BLT, a ham-and-cheese sandwich, a salad complete with dressing, and with what's left over, I believe you could make the better part of a cow. A man my age has no business trying to pick up that much, let alone eat it. It should come with a label. Something like, "Warning. When eating a Daddy-o Burger, be sure to lift with the knees, not with the back."
Lou Aaron's office walls are crowded with Westside memorabilia—the full-color frontal pic of the drive-in with the carport wings spread out like a goose coming in for a landing, the newspaper photo with Mayor Bieter presenting Lou some distinction or other, BW's glowing food review—all framed and under glass. There is also proof that Aaron is no ordinary short-order cook. Between the time this Bishop Kelly boy graduated in the '70s and bought the Westside in '94, he made a name for himself in the culinary arts, and his personal credentials hang on the wall next to those of his establishment. Of the Westside's two slogans, one of them says it all: "The Only Drive-In With A Chef."
The other slogan—"There's Nothing As Nifty As Food, Fun & Fifties"—reflects that American Graffiti vibe Aaron has worked hard to achieve.
"It's still a hangout," he says. "We get a lot of people walking or on bicycles who come here and just sit on the patio."
The Westside was built in 1957, and except for the bright white and cuddly pink color scheme, little has changed. Lou knows better than to mess with nostalgia.
"I came here when I was a kid. I grew up right over here on 27th ... We've thought about changing stuff, but our customers would freak out," he said. "You know, you go to drive-ins now and everything is computerized and they all have their headphones on, and we actually tried that about three years ago. Our customers did not like it. They want that eye-to-eye contact and the writing on a little pad and the old-style speakers. We can't get rid of that even if we wanted to."
For all the older drive-ins, the formula for staying in business in a competitive field is pretty much the same. As Lou puts it, "We buy everything fresh and make everything from scratch. And we really drill customer service into our employees. We have to be better than those other guys. People have so many choices these days. There are chains all up and down State Street, so when they drive by the Westside, we gotta make 'em think, 'I want to stop there. I don't want to go on down to Burger King.'
"My mom had a bunch of old cookbooks from the '50s. I went through and picked out all the best recipes I could find, like all of our floats and special sauce recipes and that kind of stuff. I went back to the old way of doing things. Like, real ice cream milkshakes ... you know, (other places) use 3-percent butter fat in their shakes. We use 12 percent. Heavy-duty stuff."
(Good thing this author didn't order a shake with the Daddy-o. They'd have had to move me out of there with a forklift.)
1929 W. State St.—open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (9 p.m. on Sundays), 208-342-2957.
Viking drive in
The interview is about to wrap up, so I ask Jerry about an oddly named entree on his menu.
"The Henderson? Oh, that's named for a guy that used to work here."
His daughter Julie provides the details: "It's double everything ... double patties, double cheese, double ham and bacon." I say, "Jeesh," and Jerry nods, "Yeah, it's so big we came up with the 'Baby Henderson' for people who can't eat that much." I tell them of my intentions to get the most distinctive burger from every drive-in, and Julie offers to fix me a Henderson then and there. It's only 9:30 in the morning, but I take her up on it anyway, explaining I'd save it for lunch. A few minutes later, she's back with a brown paper sack exuding about the most scrumptious aroma I've ever smelled coming from a brown paper sack. Julie says, "You don't have to eat it now, but you have to look at it, at least." I peek in and the ham, hanging out from around the bun like a frilly fringe, smiles up at me. The bacon winks with come hither naughtiness. Suddenly, I am considering taking an early lunch.
Julie Moore is adamant that I don't forget to mention the Viking is a great place for dogs, too. "Whenever we see a dog in the car, we throw in a treat for it."
Her dad, Jerry, was instrumental in forming The Independent Drive-In Association, to which many of the local mavericks belong. "About 15 years ago, I was concerned about us dying out because we didn't have the ability to compete with the chains in purchasing and marketing," he said. "So I called (the other independents) to form this association. At the first meeting, I asked 'What can we buy that we all use, something that we could get a break on?'''
As it turned out, they could agree on virtually nothing, not even a variety of ketchup they might purchase in bulk or the method they should use to advertise in common. "There's a good reason they're called 'independent,'" sighs Jerry.
Jerry's parents were among the earliest drive-in entrepreneurs in Boise, having opened one of the Two Boys In & Out establishments in '58. (The original Two Boys In & Out on Vista was started in 1955 by two Montana transplants. Legend has it that Earl Hawkins, the man who owned the Pac-Out, carefully measured that original "Two Boys" and used those same dimensions to build his own place.)
The Viking goes back to 1964. Shortly after Jerry and his folks acquired it in 1975, they bought two other places (one of which was the Westside). Until recently, his sister operated a drive-in on the south side of town. One can only marvel at the quantity of burgers the combined Moore clan must have provided to Boise appetites over the past half-century.
Teens are still an integral part of any drive-in business, if not so heavily as customers anymore, then as employees. Jerry talks about the ups and downs of being reliant on young employees: "They're good kids. They work hard ... they go to school all day ... then they come here and work 12 to 20 hours a week. If we get to 20 hours a week, we're working them too much. If we get under 12, we're not working them enough to stay proficient. But there's some great young people out there. They're just inexperienced, and they're on their way to someplace else."
I ask Julie, 28, if she's happy enough with this work to carry on the business. "I love it. I left it for a while, but I came back."
And will the Viking (the Big Bun, the Golden Wheel, the Pac-Out, the Hungry Onion, the Westside) be around for future generations? Will they be ground under by the corporate patties and industrialized fries of Sonic and Carl's Jr., Jack in the Box and Wendy's, Burger King and that joint with the golden arches?
Or might they succumb to the demands of a younger, health-obsessed America, determined to drive cholesterol from their veins and cellulite from their hips?
Jerry doesn't seem overly concerned.
"You know, we sell a lot of bacon. They might take a diet Coke with it, but they like that bacon, I don't care what they say," he said.
"We've added chicken and the veggie burger. And there are other (health-oriented) things we discussed adding ... briefly. But ya know, we are what we are."
3790 W. State St.—open 10 a.m.. to 9:30 p.m., 208-342-7289.