Tag Archives: drive-ins

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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Filed under drive-ins, food

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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Filed under drive-ins, odd buildings

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.

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