Whatever happened to drive-in restaurants?

Well, they still exist, obviously. Sonic is probably THE name in drive-in chains nowadays, as was The Varsity in another day–but back in the day (1950s-maybe 1970s), there seemed to have been a lot more independent drive-ins. They were the place to go and “hang out.” So what societal changes led to the declining numbers. Edit [Or maybe there are just as many as there ever were and I just don’t notice them.]

McDonalds and Burger King happened; the market changed to where you could get a quick burger at a drive thru and no longer had to wait on one. We still have A&W, Sonic them and various mom and pop drive-ins up North here, but they are more of a summertime thing.

I suspect we have less of a ‘car culture’ than we used to have. Sure, you have people who are into different aspects of cars; but you don’t have the Beach Boys singing about their ‘boss Civic’. When I was little, it seemed that cars were things in which to see and be seen. It doesn’t seem that way now.

Cars are different today. Dad had a '66 Ford Galaxie 500 7-Litre with bucket seats. It had more room than any car I’ve been in in 30 years. The SO has a Toyota Tacoma with split bench seats, but I can’t remember the last tim I saw a car that had bench front seating. Dashboards used to be wide, with a lot of ‘free space’. Today there are consoles everywhere, and any ‘open space’ is an air bag or storage. My Prius is actually a mid-sized car, and my Jeep Cherokee is a ‘compact SUV’. Cars are just not as big and ‘spread out-able’ as they used to be. (I was going to say they’re not as comfortable, but I think they’re comfortable – for driving.) Aside from all that, it seems people are less comfortable with hanging trays off of their windows and having things on their paint.

When I was little, and into my teens and early adulthood, cars were cool. They took you places where you could do fun stuff, and they were more of a status symbol. We didn’t have mobile phones and the Internet. It’s cooler now to hang out with several friends in a bistro than it is to sit in your car and eat with one or two other people. Why go to a drive-in when you can get a burger and a microbrew inside?
EDIT: And what Si Amigo said. (I should point out that a local place called Boomer’s is still a popular place to sit in your car and eat. But it does take longer to get your burger than it does at a drive-through.)


Not for nothing, I’ve been to the nearby Sonic on bitterly cold winter days and found it just as busy as I would during a warm summer day (although no one was eating at those outside tables, but still).

Air conditioning. In the socialization of the old drive in, patrons would go there to just hang out, and they did it outside on the service apron on warm summer evenings, and nothing in the world was lovelier. In more northerly climates, they would often close for the winter. But now there are air-conditioned inside dining rooms at fast-food outlets, and nobody wants to be outdoors where there is no A C.

There’s a few actual mom 'n pop drive ins a few towns over from me where I went to college. I was there about 2-3 times a week at 1 in the morning with a car full of drunk friends because you didn’t have to get out of your car and a big burger and a milkshake is sometimes better than taco bell.

That was 98-02 and from time to time if I’m in the area I’ll still stop by and grab a burger.

Who has time to sit around and wait at a drive-in? I want my food now! Well, at least some people think that way. Fortunately, a few of these places still exist.

For most, sitting outside in your car waiting for someone to bring you food seems so archaic compared to a drive-thru window…

Personally, I hate eating in the car, because of the smell and the mess, and as Johnny L.A. said, there’s much less room in cars today than in decades past.

Ah, to be nostalgic for the 50’s-60’s car culture! //rolleyes//
The flambaise paint jobs!
The Daddy Roth Rat Fink decals!
Moon Eyes!
The Van Nuys Drive-In Theater and others like it!

Do those drive-in joints like Sonic still have the waitresses on roller skates?

Did any of you see Dazed and Confused? The drive-in featured in that movie is an actual drive-in here in Austin called Top Notch. It’s still in operation and you can still sit in your car and eat a burger just like in the good old days.

In the early 1950’s most Americans bought the first car which anybody in the family had ever owned.
It was a BIG thing.
A car–any car-- was exciting, a symbol of the new modern lifestyle, full of potential, that gave you a new type of freedom never before known, and a sense of pride.
People wanted to live in their cars.So drive-ins were invented, and became very popular.

By , say, 1970, when you were buying your 4th new car, and your 2 teenage kids were parking two more beaters on your driveway…well, that glory was a little worn out.

And air conditioning changed everything, too.

Around here Sonic does have some roller skating waitresses but the ratio is about 20:1 non-skaters to skaters, maybe even higher

Fewer young people today have driver’s licenses than in the past. “In 1983, 69% of all 17-year-olds had driver’s licenses. By 2008, only half of 17-year-olds had licenses.” They drive less and fewer of them own cars than previously.

Do not denigrate the drive-in movie theater! The Bel-Air Drive-In and a '68 Ford LTD got me through puberty. To this day there are few movies I’ve never seen the second half of.

This is true. I’ve been going through old family photos inherited from parents, grandparents, and one aunt. There are an amazing number of pictures of people standing beside, or lounging against, their cars.

Of course it was easier to take pictures outside, back then, and if you didn’t have a garage, the car was right there to pose with. But I can tell from the body language in some of these that they’re very proud of that car.

What’s with the rolleyes?

I think you’ve hit on it. Drive in restaurants were never big in Australia but I remember when my father bought our first car (a '55 FJ Holden Special, which just meant it had more chrome than the non-special kind). Going For A Drive was something everyone did on Sundays - just to be out in the car. I bought my first car in 1975 (A red Torana) and I loved the freedom it gave me but it was a means to get to other places, not a destination in its own right.

There was the litter factor. The places like McDonald’s found it was better to either get people thru the drive-in window and out of the place or have a sit down area rather than have them eat in their car. It reduces the amount of litter outside the restaurant and reduces outside clean-up costs.

Also, drive-ins where people stay near their cars lend themselves to becoming “hangouts” for teenagers. Hangouts eventually lead to problems that the place doesn’t want to deal with.

I’m in Oklahoma, home of Sonic. I have done some mystery shops for them, and one of the questions is how many roller skaters are visible, and are they serving food or doing hospitality type duties.

There are also several independent restaurants doing similar park and get served types of service. Some are quite a bit pricier than typical fast food.

Another fast food chain out here with drive up stalls is Del Rancho.

Most that I’ve seen are clinging to existence as part of car culture - during nice weather, various car and motorcycle clubs meet at drive-in restaurants on a weekly basis. Not just vintage cars, either - the last time I went to Superdawg was with a BMW club and nothing was older than 2000.