The history of drive-in restaurants goes back nearly as far as the history of cars, with some crediting a Texas chain called the Pig Stand with popularizing the idea of parking and eating all the way back in 1921.
Many of our images of drive-ins come from pop culture, like the old TV show Happy Days or flicks like American Graffiti, where waitresses roller-skating burgers and shakes to hungry families and teenagers — some eager to show off their wheels — made it seem like every town in America had a drive-in as its culinary focal point. In some small and rural towns, that's still true, but in more urban areas, the only "drive-ins" are chains like Sonic or Zip's.
In Spokane Valley, a few classic drive-in experiences remain, where hot rods gather and families are found sitting in their cars or at picnic tables. We visited four of them as the weather turned warm enough to do the drive-in right.
MIKE'S BURGER ROYAL
6115 E. Trent, Spokane Valley; Mon-Fri, 10:30 am-5:30 pm; Sat, 11 am-4 pm
The food: Cheeseburger: $2.99, Small fries: $1.99, Milkshake: $3.59 large
The burger is basically a cheeseburger sub, and there ain't nothing wrong with that. Three patties come on a French bread bun, along with tomatoes, lettuce, three slices of cheese, mayo and mustard. The fries are thicker than McDonald's-style, hot and perfectly salted. And the shakes come in all the traditional flavors, as well as root beer, pineapple, black raspberry and more.
If you're feeling adventurous: While the Stromboli sandwich's mix of cappicola ham, provolone and chili sauce is a favorite for regulars, it's not every day you see Breaded Chicken Gizzards on a menu.
Vibe: An old-school drive-in the way they're meant to be, where all seating options are outside or in your car. The food options are vast, ranging from burgers to specialty sandwiches, fried fish and hot dogs. There are daily specials from all corners of the menu, so if you find a favorite, you might become a regular.
WENDI'S HOT ROD CAFE
11923 E. Trent, Spokane Valley; Tue-Thu, 11 am-7 pm; Fri, 8 am-7 pm; Sat, 8 am-3 pm
The food: Cheeseburger: $5.25, Small fries: $2, Milkshake: $4.75 large
The big, juicy patty easily exceeds the bun's edges, and is joined by cheese, mayo, mustard, lettuce and big hunks of fresh onion. Big appetites will be satisfied. Crinkle-cut fries with some light seasoning are the rule here — not my favorite form of fried spud, but tasty. And shakes come in the traditional flavors, plus specialties like marshmallow and peanut butter.
If you're feeling adventurous: The menu stays pretty tried-and-true, but you don't see oysters at many drive-ins, so the Oysters Combo ($8.99) might be in order if you're looking beyond burgers.
Vibe: The interior walls are covered in cars — models, posters, prints — along with pictures of James Dean. When the weather's warm, though, sit outside at one of the picnic tables, shaded by a few trees and watching the trains roll by. Regular "cruise nights" mean a steady flow of classic hot rods, so pack a camera if you're a car nut.
THRIFTY SCOTSMAN DRIVE-IN
12024 E. Sprague, Spokane Valley; Mon-Thu, 10:30 am-9 pm; Fri, 10:30 am-9:30 pm; Sat, 11 am-9:30 pm; Sun, 11 am-8 pm
The food: Cheeseburger: $2.49, Small fries: $1.99, Milkshake: $3.59 large
The diminutive burger is completely hidden by the bun. It comes with cheese, ketchup, mustard and pickle, but if you're hungry, you probably want to amp up to a bigger Super Bacon or Scotsman Burger. Big, fat steak fries are hot and just crispy enough, good enough to warrant a visit on their own. The shakes cover all the traditional flavors.
If you're feeling adventurous: I don't know why you don't see a chicken-fried steak sandwich on more menus; it seems both obvious and delicious.
Vibe: The interior is basic; about 15 tables and walls covered with pictures of hot rods and '50s icons like Marilyn Monroe. Outside is where it's at, with picnic tables and a surprising amount of parking for in-car dining.
12502 E. Sprague, Spokane Valley; Sun-Wed, 10:30 am-8 pm; Thu-Sat, 10:30-9 pm
The food: Cheeseburger: $2.29, Small fries: $1.99, Milkshake: $2.99
Another little burger, the patty is topped with ketchup, mustard, pickles and mustard. If you're really hungry, step up to a Big R or the Classic ¼ Pounder. Skinny fries, à la McDonald's, came out fresh and hot, but lacking salt. The milkshake flavors aren't super-creative, but they're a great deal —$2.99 gets you 24 ounces of frosty goodness.
If you're feeling adventurous: The Broasted Chicken looked worth the 15-minute wait, but I have to look at the Pail of Fish, mostly because I've never ordered a pail of anything for dinner.
Vibe: Ron's is not a drive-in the traditional sense. Yes, there's plenty of parking if you want to hang outside with your meal, and Drive-Inn is part of the name, so we're including Ron's. The interior is big, and it very much feels like a typical fast-food joint, albeit one with a way bigger menu. ♦