The average drive-in restaurant is open from spring to autumn and shows off what is genuine and good in rural America: kids with doting grandparents, frugal families on road trips, hard-working farmers, flirtatious teens.
The blending of ages and incomes is a lot like counter seating at a diner, although the windshield view is more private. We come for the food and might leave with a wider life perspective.
Seek out the dwindling number of mom-and-pop spots that hire energetic carhops and deliver burgers wrapped in butcher paper, root beer in frosty glass mugs. These Wisconsin destinations fit the bill.
Ardy and Ed’s
2413 S. Main St., Oshkosh: Ever since the gravel parking lot was paved in 1985, carhops on roller skates have delivered many mugs of root beer in one swoop, sometimes while music from the 1950s and ’60s plays in the background. Within view and a quick walk is Lake Winnebago. Heading the menu are brats served by the patty instead of the link and pizza burgers.
806 W. Main St., Hortonville: Carl and Rachel Mann, a brother-sister team, add flourish to the show that their parents began in 1965. He is known to impersonate Elvis and wear sequined jumpsuits. On her leg is a huge tattoo of a carhop delivering lunch to a sedan with tailfins. Longtime family secrets include the spice blend for their triple-ground burgers, the recipe for tomato-less barbecue and sauces called The Works and Horsey. charliesdrivein.com
Tip: Classic car buffs head 30 miles northwest, to Iola, during mid summer for the Midwest’s biggest show of vintage cars.
1504 Eastern Ave., Plymouth: Cars are pulled into a horseshoe of parking spaces, so it’s easy to observe signs of young love and rural life while waiting for food. For decades, high school cheerleaders nabbed the coveted carhop jobs. Order Chester’s Special: root beer, fries and a burger whose key ingredients come from local butchers and bakers. That’s a full lunch for around $5. facebook.com/pages/ chesters-drive-in/125853800823935
7411 Hwy. 21, Wautoma: Thick malts and shakes – that includes the minty-green My Favorite Martian – are beloved specialties at this neon-lit box of a business that opened in the 1940s. Loyalty rules: Owner Cindy Sommer sponsors a softball team in Chicago because of longtime customers who annually vacation in the area. facebook.com/pages/miltywilty- drive-in/114483638637353
Tip: Rent a cottage with a boat and explore the Waupaca Chain O’ Lakes, 30 miles north. www.waupacaareachamber.com
1004 La Crosse St., La Crosse; 514 S. Water St., Sparta: Roller-skating carhops deliver walnut burgers and frozen yogurt, buffalo burgers and banana splits. What began as a root beer stand in the 1930s has entered its third generation of family ownership. Now the menu contains low-fat options as well as ever-lovin’ dawgs and fries.
Tip: Follow the Great River Road along the Mississippi River. Most of the 250 Wisconsin miles of this National Scenic Byway follow Highway 35. www.wigrr.com
2117 75th St., Kenosha: Most of Wisconsin’s family-owned drive-ins close as temps dip in autumn, but this drive-in is a big exception. The Spot even stays open in wintry, sub-zero weather. Business began in 1945, when customers who wanted a meal “to go” brought their own bag or box to carry it home.
Tip: Savor local flavors and gorgeous Lake Michigan views at the Saturday Kenosha Harbor Market, which is close to downtown museums. kenoshaharbormarketplace. com
This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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