Tag Archives: drive-ins

Famous in its day: the Parkmoor

It’s been somewhat frustrating researching the Parkmoor chain of drive-ins that once did business in St. Louis, my home town. My main source has been a book written by Lou Ellen McGinley, daughter of the chain’s founder and manager of the Clayton Road Parkmoor from 1977 until its closing in 1999.

The book is called Honk for Service, yet throughout it are shown menus that say clearly at the top “Flash Your Lights for Service.” Alas, this is but one tipoff that somebody wasn’t totally on the job.

Nevertheless, the book enlightened me about a number of things, especially that there were once six Parkmoors in St. Louis. I had thought that the Parkmoor at Big Bend and Clayton was the one and only. In fact it was the sole survivor as well as the original, in 1930 the site of a Tudor-style drive-in. Three more Parkmoors opened in the 1930s and two in the 1950s, but all five of them were gone by 1971.

From 1940 to 1953 there was also a McGinley Parkmoor in Indianapolis. Parkmoor was a popular name for mid-century drive-ins. The Parkmoors in Amarillo TX, Knoxville TN (one O), Dayton OH, and Sarasota FL were not related.

I enjoyed the book’s charming illustrations, but I was disappointed to find only a single blurred and partial image of the exterior of the modern orange-roofed Parkmoor building that most St. Louisans knew (pictured above after being closed; razed in 2004). And there was no mention of when it was constructed, who designed it, or why the McGinleys chose what was for architecturally conservative St. Louis such an exotic, California-style design.

As I remember it, the interior was impressively ugly. It had a tall peaked ceiling and a lava-stone back wall. All the seating was built-in and covered in orange leatherette. To the right of the entrance was an L-shaped counter with cantilevered seats that projected up diagonally from the base. Down the center of the room was a 3-foot high divider with plants growing from the top. On either side of the divider were rows of two-person mini-booths, while larger booths ran along the continuous windows to the left.

From what I’ve been able to discover poking around, the Googie-style Parkmoor was built in 1969. By that time the restaurant was no longer a drive-in. Honk for Service does not say when carhops were dispensed with, but according to a newspaper want ad they were still being hired in 1963 even though two locations had adopted speaker-based ordering systems by then.

Lou Ellen’s father, William Louis McGinley, began his business career in the 1920s as head of a Texas company that sold trays to drive-ins. According to Honk for Service he was inspired to open a drive-in in St. Louis as an “I’ll show them” response after he was informed by Dorr & Zeller, an old-line catering company, that St. Louis was not the kind of city that would accept drive-ins.

Was it a similar motive that led McGinley to open a Parkmoor very near Dorr & Zeller on DeBaliviere in the city’s west end? It turned out to be an ill-fated locale. A brawl there in which police shot and killed two men in 1965 may have contributed to the demise of that location a few years later.

Both generations of McGinleys were cattle ranchers who spent much of their time in Texas while overseeing the Parkmoor. As with most drive-ins, the menu featured hamburgers; the beef was ground in a two-story commissary building erected on a corner of the Clayton Road Parkmoor’s parking lot. The beef, however, did not come from the family’s Texas ranch.

A little taste of Texas appeared on a 1930 menu which offers a Top Sirloin Steak served with French fried potatoes, lettuce, tomato, bread and butter – plus a “Texas preserved fig” – all for 55c. Add a Dr. Pepper for an additional 5c.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Good eaters: students

As far back as the early 19th century students have made up a notable segment of restaurant clientele. They have played a significant historical role both in supporting the growth of restaurants and in shaping the eating habits of Americans.

In the 1800s some restaurants located near colleges specifically catered to students, alumni, and college faculty and staff. As incomparable caterer Othello Pollard of Cambridge MA noted in an 1802 advertisement, “Harvard flourishes and Othello lives.” In NYC in the 1840s poor divinity students could be found at the “sixpenny” eating house called Sweeny’s downing slices of roast beef, clam soup, pickles, and bread and cheese.

One of the penny-pinching patrons at Sweeny’s was Lyman Abbot, an NYU student who later became a noted theologian. Each month when he got his allowance he splurged on dinner at Delmonico’s, but as his money ran low at the end of the month he subsisted on Sweeny’s wheat cakes.

Restaurants clustered around colleges often billed themselves as “student headquarters” and supplied not only food, but entertainment in the form of billiards and supplies such as books and stationery. Hoadley’s, “Hoad’s” to Harvard students, also rented velocipedes in the 1860s. Restaurants around Yale sold weekly meal tickets, hosted private parties, and delivered midnight snacks – “spreads” – to students’ rooms [pictured: midnight “lunch” near Penn State College, 1905]. Billy Park’s chop house in Boston was a hot spot for Harvard students following athletic events. Big-spending students could enjoy the luxurious “sports bar” eateries of their day at places such as Newman’s College Inn in Oakland CA. When it opened ca. 1910 it was decorated with college pendants and tapestries depicting scenes in a man’s life from college to middle age. Murals pictured various college sports while chandeliers were fashioned out of copper and glass footballs.

Alums regularly gravitated back to their college haunts to relive their youth. “Papa” confessed to his daughter on a 1906 postcard of the “Famous Dutch Kitchen, one of the most noted student resorts in the country” near Cornell University, that he planned to eat there before returning home. “I am going to be a college sport for just two days. Big crowd in town. Slept at Fraternity house last night,” he wrote.

Many 19th-century eating places were restricted to male guests, but students at women’s colleges were supplied with tea rooms in the early 20th century [pictured: Brown Betty tea room near Shorter College]. Near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Almira Lovell’s University Tea Room offered teas along with dressmakers’ supplies and college souvenirs in 1903. Around the same time Smith students could often be found curled up on window seats eating popcorn at the Copper Kettle in Northampton. Well into the 1920s being stricken from a college’s approved list was the kiss of death for tea rooms and other eating places that depended upon patronage of women students. Such was the fate of the Rose Tree Inn in Northampton as well as a tea room near Connecticut College.

Students dearly appreciated places to “hang out” because well into the 20th century colleges and universities provided few dormitories and many students lived in rented rooms off campus. Plus, as recent research into Depression-era student life at the State Teachers College in Normal IL has shown, living off campus permitted poor students to economize on food expenses.

College students were prominent among the artsy, “bohemian” restaurant-going crowd. In the late 19th century, when lower Manhattan was filled with schools, students congregated around Washington Square. San Francisco’s art students loved Italian dinners at Sanguinetti’s. In Chicago in the 1920s students met at the Wind Blew Inn. In later decades student beatniks would flock to coffee houses, which in turn were succeeded by hippie hangouts. In 1960 the NYT reported that in one Greenwich Village student café an undercover government agent was asked blandly, “Do you want coffee or peyote?”

It’s harder to track high school students, at least until the 40s and 50s when their consumption of snack foods such as hamburgers, sodas, and pizzas became noticeable. Like college students before them they tended to favor informal meals eaten at odd hours of the day and night.

It would be interesting to calculate how many of the post-WWII fast food restaurant chains opened their early units near high schools and colleges. This was certainly true of King’s Food Host, Steak n Shake, and the Parkmoor drive-ins. I have no doubt there were many others.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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Steakburgers and shakes

After recently reading Roger Ebert’s wonderful book Life Itself, I decided to write this post and dedicate it to him. I loved his depictions of his childhood, which included his first restaurant meal, a steakburger at Steak n Shake, near the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign where his father worked as an electrician. He has also written about the restaurant on his Sun Times blog.

Even though I grew up in St. Louis, where there were many Steak n Shakes, most with curb service in the early years, I knew nothing about the chain’s history then and mistakenly believed it originated in St. Louis. I’m embarrassed to admit that I held a widespread St. Louis prejudice that few good things came from Illinois, the chain’s first home.

The chain was founded by Gus Belt and his wife Edith. Their basic problem was the Depression. The gas station Gus operated in the town of Normal, Illinois, was not thriving. In 1932 he and Edith decided to extend into the restaurant business by converting a house on the property to an eating place serving Edith’s fried chicken and beer, which was about to become legal in the first stage of Repeal. They called it the Shell Inn.

According to Robert Cronin’s Selling Steakburgers, beer was a bigger hit than chicken. Because Normal was the home of a state college that trained teachers, who were supposed to be morally upright, the town had a long history of forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages. After a brief wide-open period following Repeal, the town voted 2 to 1 to remain dry. Seeing what was about to befall their eatery, Edith and Gus decided to turn it into a hamburger joint.

They followed an honored tradition in the restaurant business of studying the successful practices of others and copying them like crazy.

The Shell Inn’s prime customers were the students at the nearby teachers college. No doubt the Belts had observed how much college students in the neighboring town of Champaign enjoyed hamburgers at the White Spot, the White House Lunch, Wimpy’s, and Maid-Rite. With the switch to burgers, the Belts renamed their place “Whitehouse Steak n Shake.” Later, they would adopt another idea from Champaign’s hamburger sellers, that of selling burgers by the bag (“Buy ‘Em by the Sack” advertised White Spot), borrowing the “Takhomasak” slogan from a Colorado restaurant. The idea of advertising that your hamburgers contained higher grades of steak was not unique to Steak n Shake. In Detroit during the Depression, there were a couple of places advertising this: the Marcus All Steak Hamburger Restaurant chain, and Meyers Real Steak Hamburgers. I wonder too if the Belts got the idea of serving food on china from Champaign’s Wimpy’s.

Their timing was good. Led by youthful first adopters, hamburgers, once shunned by the middle class who associated them with poverty and adulteration, were gaining respectability. Also reassuring was Steak n Shake’s squeaky clean white tile interior characteristic of 1920s lunch rooms and hamburger chains such as White Castle.

Theirs was among a number of hamburger chains that proliferated in the Midwest and other non-coastal areas during the Depression. Among the chains that got their start then were Little Canary Castle (Winston-Salem NC, 1931), Krystal (Chattanooga TN, 1932), Wimpy Grills (Bloomington IN, 1934), White Hut (Toledo OH, 1935), and Rockybilt (Denver CO, 1936). So the 1930s, which had begun so poorly for the couple, turned out well for them.

By 1940 the Belts had units in Normal’s twin city of Bloomington, as well as Champaign [1937 advertisement above], Decatur, E. Peoria [pictured at top], Galesburg, Danville, and Springfield. In the late 1940s Steak n Shake moved into St. Louis and in 1959, five years after Gus’s death, with Edith at the helm, there were 14 units in that city. Indianapolis [pictured 1965] and Florida were other early markets. By the time Edith sold the family’s controlling interest to the Longchamps corporation in 1969, there were 50 or so units.

After that the story shifts to corporate history, with decades of ups and downs, aborted openings in Chicago and Texas, modernizations and returns to roots, changes in ownership, and further expansion until today when there are almost 500 units in 22 states.

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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It was a dilly

Dilly-Wagon drive-ins, which looked like oversize prairie schooners, were certainly eye-catching enough in the 1960s but their main attraction was the “It’s a Dilly” sauce served on burgers and hot dogs. People still remember it longingly. I wish somebody would describe it. Was it a mayonnaise-based sauce with dill in it like that used with fish? What made it hot?

The sauce was created by Charles Weinstein who experimented with it in his Potsdam NY kitchen after an illness prevented him from continuing with his former business, selling apparel. The sauce, which was guaranteed to “perk up … just about any meat or meat dish,” was also sold in food stores, with three degrees of hotness, Pleasing, Extra, and Triple “for those who like a sauce that sizzles.”

In February of 1961 Charles applied for a patent for the design of his drive-in structure [see illustrations]. In the early 1960s local and regional drive-ins were still popular, not yet squeezed out by national fast-food franchises. Why he chose a Conestoga wagon style is unknown, but as was true of all roadside businesses, being able to catch the eye of passing motorists was critical.

Later in 1961 an advertisement appeared in the South Burlington High School yearbook for a Dilly-Wagon drive-in at 1907 Williston Road. That same year Charles ran an ad in the Oneonta NY paper saying that the drive-ins cost only $12,750, could be opened in three short weeks, and were ideal for a college town. By August there were Dilly Wagons not only in Burlington but in Rutland VT and in Potsdam NY, and he was hoping to place more in the Lake George area.

Strangely, by summer 1962 the price of a Dilly Wagon had inexplicably jumped up to $20,000, according to a franchise advertisement that appeared in a Pennsylvania newspaper.

Exactly how many Dilly-Wagons were franchised, and where, is unknown. I’ve been able to locate one in New Hartford NY and one as far away as Sheboygan WI. The Wisconsin Dilly-Wagon, purchased in 1963, was run in conjunction with a Dairy Queen stand. There was also a Dilly Bar operated by Charles Weinstein and a partner on Curry Road in Schenectady NY (pictured, 1966). Curiously, this operation, which was not in the form of a covered wagon, specialized not just in burgers and hot dogs but also Chinese egg rolls, Southern fried chicken, and “dilly root beer,” whatever that might be.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Wayne McAllister’s drive-ins in the round

Architects who design restaurants often have labored in anonymity, and that goes ten-fold for those whose work involved drive-in restaurants. In the beginning drive-ins were simple shacks plastered with signs, as were other buildings of the early automobile age. Like the chicken coups converted to motor courts and the farmers’ fields rigged out for overnight camping, they served as temporary fixes for seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck from the passing traffic.

The couple of dozen Los Angeles drive-ins Wayne McAllister designed in the 1930s – the Wich Stand, Simon’s, Robert’s, Herbert’s, Melody Lane — were likewise ephemeral, tumbling into ruins with rising real estate values. Yet, despite the ephemerality of the form, he was one of the few designers who managed to develop a functional and aesthetically satisfying style for an inexpensive roadside building type.

This post is based mostly upon Chris Nichols’ The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister, a book that traces McAllister’s career and conveys his genius at transforming crude vernacular building forms into sophisticated expressions of car culture.

Born in San Diego, Wayne McAllister and his wife Corinne, then both 20, took on a major project in 1927 with the Moorish Moderne design of Agua Caliente, a Prohibition-era Tijuana gambling mecca. Wayne was a self-taught high school dropout whose first job was designing houses, a task he was able to execute handily. According to his own account, he regularly completed a new design each day. In the course of a roughly 30-year architectural career, his work focused on the design and remodeling of hotels and restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Among his Las Vegas hotel projects were El Rancho Vegas, the Desert Inn, and the Sands Hotel, while a partial list of his LA restaurants includes Café Caliente, Mike Lyman’s, Richlor’s, Lawry’s, Clifton’s, and Bob’s Big Boy. From 1956 to 1961 he was an architect for the Marriott Corporation.

Although he is best known for the Sands, his circular drive-ins are considered significant in architectural history. Alan Hess, author of Googie, noted that thanks to Wayne McAllister, “Commercial vernacular design developed a respectable architecture that stands on its own right, not simply as a second-rate version of high art design.” It is interesting that even a lofty modern architect like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe developed a drive-in restaurant design, in 1945 (it was never built).

Wayne’s circular drive-ins typically had 20-foot pylons on the roof on which the drive-in’s name was spelled out, with horizontal louvers partially concealing neon tubes that made the signs glow. While his early designs had no doors – the businesses stayed open 24/7 and evidently had no need of heating or air-conditioning – this element was eventually modified. For a time his styles were influential, but after World War II when drive-ins expanded throughout the country, round buildings with overspread roofs were scrapped for rectangular structures from which long canopies stretched outward.

Noir crime novelist Raymond Chandler referred to Los Angeles’ drive-ins “gay as circuses” in The Little Sister (1949), leading Alan Hess to remark: “In almost anyone’s mental map of Los Angeles, the drive-ins of the thirties had become indelible landmarks.” Their images remain no less powerful today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Image gallery: tally ho

A persistent theme in 20th-century restaurants, found mainly in names and signs – and thankfully now over – was the coach and four theme. Obviously it is only one of a host of old-time symbols that restaurants have borrowed over the past 100 years. Others include spinning wheels, grist mills, and, oddly enough, brothels, all suggestive of simpler times when things were made by hand and gender roles were clear cut. The names and signs also acted as practical signifiers indicating to prospective patrons that they could expect standard American food to dominate the menu.

Both World War I and World War II stimulated this theme, possibly because Americans were looking for comfort and reassurance. Tea rooms of the First World War era were among the first and the worst offenders when it came to invoking a stable and secure pseudo-past. (When they were in New England, you think, Well, they have a right.  Yeah, maybe.) An even stronger wave of nostalgia washed through the nation’s restaurants after the Second World War, replacing the brash modernism of the 1930s with colonial motifs for coffee shops and cafeterias. Never mind that the actual mode of transportation was bringing smog and sprawl to cities nor that convenience food had overtaken restaurant kitchens whose cooks could no more have cooked from scratch at a fireplace than their patrons could have hitched a buggy.

[Left] One of James Beard‘s favorite restaurants was Greenwich Village’s Coach House. It differed from most of its namesakes in having innovative cuisine. [Right] Another Coach House, in Atlanta.

Another Coast House, in Atlanta.

Even drive-ins might invoke olden days of transport, as did the Autoburger with an old-fashioned jalopy on its sign. But most drive-ins, such as LA’s Carpenter’s, acknowledged that their patrons arrived by cars of the latest model.

A transportation motif that didn’t make it onto signs and nameplates was the motorcycle, despite its popularity with many patrons. Needless to say, signs with horses and buggies never pictured African-American passengers.

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Basic fare: French fries

I suspect that in the 19th century more Americans ate French fried potatoes at home than in restaurants. Boiled, baked, and mashed potatoes were more common on restaurant menus than fried potatoes of any sort.

However there were probably a few restaurants that served French fries. Maria Parloa, whose New Cook Book of 1880 included a recipe for preparing French fried potatoes in a frying basket lowered into boiling fat, traveled around giving cooking lessons, and I know of at least one restaurant manager who attended them. The course of lessons she delivered in Trenton NJ in 1884 included how to make French fries, perhaps extending to the sweet potato fries that appeared in her cookbook. I have discovered at least one 19th-century restaurant menu with French fries, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1894.

The reason why few restaurants served fries then was not that they weren’t popular but that they used too much cooking fat. According to Jessup Whitehead, a culinary advisor to restaurant cooks in the 1880s and 1890s, raw potatoes cooked in hot lard were the most expensive potato dish for an eating place to prepare, while baked potatoes were the most economical.

Perhaps things were starting to change in the 20th century. I’ve found a 1902 advertisement for a potato slicer for hotels and restaurants that cut “perfect French fries.” In 1911 another company produced a heavy duty model (pictured). Around this time there was a movement afoot among restaurants to charge separately for French fries rather than provide them “free” with meat or fish orders. This change could have made it possible to make a profit despite the high cost of cooking oil.

In France at this time – and probably much earlier – street vendors outfitted pushcarts with coke-fired kettles and prepared fries (“pomme frites”) on the spot for customers who ate them from  paper cones. Many American soldiers in France during World War I developed the French fry habit, probably increasing demand for them in this country upon their return. In the 1920s and 1930s they began to appear on more and more menus. During World War II potatoes were scarce but after the war returning GIs, sick of mashed potatoes because of the dehydrated ones they had eaten in mess halls, hungered for French fries. Through much of the 20th century restaurant operators believed that men loved fries more than women did.

French fries were prominent on menus of postwar drive-ins. By then they were available frozen or formed from moistened dried potatoes forced through an extruder (little did the vets know they were eating dehydrated potatoes in a new guise). By 1968 the restaurant industry considered it “archaic” to make French fries from fresh raw potatoes. It was so much easier to shake frozen fries out of a bag straight into the fryer, no muss, no waste. According to Jakle & Sculle in their book Fast Food, the consumption of frozen potatoes went from 6.6 pounds a year per person in 1960 to 36.8 pounds in 1976. In this same period French fries made the short hop from drive-ins to their successors, hamburger chains such as McDonald’s.

Perhaps because of their mid-century popularity as side dish to sandwiches, French fries were shoved aside in the white tablecloth restaurants of the 1960s and 1970s by the old-fashioned baked potato which returned to favor as the prestigious accompaniment to steak and prime rib, especially when served with sour cream and fresh, er, frozen, chives.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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(In)famous in its day: the Nixon’s chain

nixonsDriveIn338Since the 35th anniversary of Richard M. Nixon’s 1974 resignation from the presidency was commemorated this past weekend, it’s as good a time as any to focus on his brother Donald’s brief career as a restaurateur in Southern California. In the short span of five years in the 1950s, Don managed to go out of business while doing some serious damage to brother Richard’s political fortunes.

He got into several pickles but the biggest issue concerned a 1956 loan of $205,000 he received from Howard Hughes’s tool company to rescue his failing restaurants. Richard Nixon was VP in the Eisenhower administration at the time. Although Don denied that his brother had any involvement in soliciting the loan, critics were not convinced and persisted in raising questions about several decisions the government made that were beneficial to defense contractor Hughes. The toxic issue dogged Nixon in his unsuccessful 1960 presidential campaign against John Kennedy and again in his failed 1962 California gubernatorial run.

nixonburgerREVThe chain of five Nixon’s restaurants began modestly in 1943 when the Nixon family’s grocery store, established in 1922 by father Francis Nixon in Whittier, added a coffee shop. Although Don was involved in running the coffee shop, his first real business venture took place in 1952 when he opened a drive-in on East Whittier Blvd. (shown above). Two years later he opened Nixon’s Family Restaurant, also on East Whittier, home of the “Nixon Burger” whose unfortunate, opportunistic name would be used to taunt Richard Nixon during his two terms as President. Next Don opened a drive-in near Disneyland, in Anaheim, and a restaurant and bakery in Fullerton. In 1957, despite the Hughes loan and proceeds from the sale of Nixon’s Market to a supermarket chain, Don Nixon put all five restaurants up for sale to settle the chain’s debts.

The Nixon’s at 822 E. Whittier became a Whirly’s Drive-in, which itself went out of business in 1962 or early 1963. The Anaheim Nixon’s, at Harbor Blvd. and Katella Ave., was taken over by the Harris chain of Portland OR in 1958 after it was remodeled to include a cocktail lounge. Cocktails had been prohibited in the Nixon’s restaurants judging from a 1954 ad which proclaimed, “Since children are most welcome at Nixon’s – liquor is never served.”

In subsequent years as President, from 1969 to 1974, Richard Nixon kept close tabs on Don. At one point he had the Secret Service wiretap his phone. Richard also found Don a job that he hoped would keep him out of trouble. In 1970 staunch Republican J. Willard Marriott, founder of the Hot Shoppes and CEO of the Marriott Corporation, agreed to do the President a favor. Marriott appointed Don vice president in charge of franchises and acquisitions on the West Coast. Marriott officials denied that Don had any influence in helping the company win government contracts.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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