The Thrifty Scotsman is one of those great, locally owned independent drive-ins that gets most everything -- including big juicy burgers -- so exactly right in terms of quality, price and friendly service that it puts every big chain burger shack in town to utter shame.
Aside from the restaurant's name (and sign out front depicting two kilt-wearing clansmen battling over a dollar bill), there is a complete lack of Highland claptrap to be found anywhere inside. Where's the plaid? Where are the pipes? Perhaps it's just as well. In fact, what struck me most about the restaurant's tidy interior dining room -- given the Thrifty Scotsman's reputation as one the last bastions of smoke 'em-if-you-got 'em fast food dining -- was the complete lack of cigarette smoke. Then I spied it: that telltale green diamond on the door. It's official; the Thrifty Scotsman has gone smoke-free. It's a major improvement. Not only are the cigs history, but the dining room has obviously undergone a semi-recent remodel as well. Imitation oak paneling and new lighting really brighten up the place, and that '50s-era drive-in memorabilia covering the walls inexplicably puts me at ease. The picture of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe leaning back to back against a tree was particularly inspiring.
For the most part, the Thrifty Scotsman's menu board is a study in familiar drive-in options, with the hamburger hierarchy firmly entrenched. The 99 & cent; single burger gets you in the door. Upgrades to cheeseburger, double cheeseburger and Thrifty burger will set you back $1.19, $1.79 and $1.99, respectively. The most you'll pay for a burger is $2.49 (for either the Super Bacon or the Super Ham). The most pricey menu item is a double order of either the fish & amp; fries or the chicken strips & amp; fries (just $5.49). There are, however, some interesting alternatives as well. You can get a corn dog for 99 & cent;, a chicken fried steak sandwich for $2.25 or the shrimp and fries basket for $3.99 and -- What's this? Strawberry shortcake ($1.39)? Green salad ($1.95)?
We were actually taken aback after transmitting our order for the $5.49 double fish & amp; fries when the order taker inquired what kind of dressing we wanted on our salad. (What a minute. Where are we anyway? And where's the hidden camera?) After a moment or two of no small confusion, we were politely informed that, indeed, a side salad comes with the double order of fish & amp; fries. Still reeling from the unexpectedly healthy side option we were being offered, we swiftly chose an alternative: extra fries.
The breading on the stick-style cod strips was very crunchy and interesting in texture. They were hot little mothers -- but good. And there was a ton of 'em. What other drive-in around town loads their double fish with eight (that's right, eight) portions from the deep blue sea? It took a massive fishy-ingesting effort just to get to the fries lurking beneath.
And those fries were winners. First of all, they're hand-cut on-site from fresh potatoes (aside from Dick's, this is the only burger joint in town I know of that does this). If you've ever had fresh fries, you know what I'm talking about. They quite simply stomp all over their tasteless frozen brethren, especially when cooked to crispy and tender perfection as these were. Here, they cut them thick and wide -- just right for scooping ketchup or some of the Thrifty Scotsman's tangy pump-dispensed tartar sauce.
The onion rings ($1.39 for a small order) were evenly battered, flavorful, not too greasy and conveniently bite-sized. They were darned pretty, too.
The Super Bacon ($2.59) is essentially a bacon double cheeseburger with the works (mayo, lettuce, tomato) spread out over the expanse of a six-inch poor boy bun. It's definitely a two-fister. And delicious as well with the cool shredded lettuce and tomato contrasting with the hot, savory ground beef and cheese.
In taste, quality and construction, the burgers at the Thrifty Scotsman are strongly reminiscent of those found at Zip's (that's a compliment, by the way). It's no coincidence. Owner/operator Floyd Brown opened the Thrifty Scotsman nearly 23 years ago after working eight years for the Zip's organization. Over the years, Brown has built up a loyal customer base.
"Oh we have people that have been coming in here for over 20 years," he says. "There are a bunch that come in every single day in the afternoons for a little coffee session."
Were any feathers ruffled when the no-smoking rule was implemented?
"You'll always get one or two who complain, but overall people have said that they're really glad that it changed. And a lot of people that used to only use the drive-through come inside now."
And why not come inside? The staff here is friendly, helpful and conscientious -- quite a nice change.
So the next time you're heading east on Sprague with a hankering for ground cow, do yourself a favor and avoid McJackCarlKing's. Stop in and sample the Thrifty Scotsman's fine wares. You might find saving coin never tasted so good.