More than 65 drive-in restaurants were listed in the 1960 Kansas City phone book, including the long-vanished Toon 'n' Tote, the Paul Bunyan, Smaks, Nu-Way, and nine locations for a burger and root beer place called Mugs-Up.
There's one Mugs-Up left, thank goodness, a low-slung, orange-and-white triangular building in Independence known as Bill and Ann's Mugs-Up (700 E. 23rd St.; 816-254-7040), where a friendly, young carhop brought out a heavy glass mug, frosty-cold, filled with icy root beer "that's still made here in the basement, like it always was," the carhop says. At night, the long tubes of fluorescent lights under the metal canopy cast a yellowish glow around the place, which is usually filled with cars and trucks, each with a metal tray clipped to the driver's side window, balancing mugs of Black Cows (root beer and ice cream) and the restaurant's featured "burgers," all made with seasoned "loose meat," like a sloppy Joe and mounded on a soft bun with pickles, onion, and mustard. The basic burger, the Zip Burger, sells for $1.40. With cheese, it becomes a Whiz Burger ($1.55), just as a plain hot dog becomes a Whiz Dog with a square of good ol' American melted on top of it. There are pork tenderloin sandwiches and burritos too.
Even though the establishment offers no slick "playground" or toy-laden kiddie meals, the fact that a kid can still be entertained there speaks volumes about the magic of the place. For instance, a grandmother pulled into the parking spot next to mine, her Lincoln barely able to contain the restless energy of her badly behaving three grandsons, who were monsters until the food arrived: a tray of Black Cows and Whiz Burgers. Once the boys started eating, they became perfect angels, not uttering a peep while in a kind of root-beer rapture. I felt the same rapture, sipping the slightly tangy, sweet root beer. The place reminded me of a similar family-owned drive-in in my hometown that I loved as a kid, which survived until the late 1960s, when it was demolished to make room for a sparkling new McDonald's.
"In 1964, there were an estimated 33,500 restaurants in the United States calling themselves drive-ins," wrote John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle in the book Fast Food. But labor costs were high, and many family-owned drive-ins were open during only the summer months, when it was comfortable to eat in the car. At the fast-growing McDonald's chain, the food was simple, inexpensive, and of uniform quality, no matter which store you visited. Also, McDonald's restaurants had always stayed away from carhop service because it attracted "the teenage crowd ... which loomed as an unruly and sometimes criminal age group, according to American thinking in the late 1940s and '50s," Jakle and Sculle wrote.
In American Graffiti, Mel's Drive-In is the ultimate '60s teenage hangout, just as local joints, like Smaks and Sidney's Drive-In used to be. Former Kansas Citian Barbara DeZonia remembers the long-razed, circle-shaped Sidney's Drive-In on the Plaza as "the place all the high school kids of the 1960s practically lived in, eating ice cream sodas and smoking until the wee hours, when adults would wheel in from the country clubs, three sheets to the wind, to get something to eat." The same drive-in was known a decade earlier as the Zlan, a drive-in that served, unexpectedly, a rabbit burger in addition to the grilled beef variety, according to radio veteran Walt Bodine, who recalled "they were not a roaring success."
A sandwich made of deep-fried pork brains is still on the menu at the 33-year-old Clem's Drive-In (10802 E. 23rd St.; 816-461-9472), alongside a very crispy fried pork tenderloin sandwich, a fried fish sandwich, and its own version of the loose-meat burger, served here with chopped onion, pickles, and a tangy barbecue-style sauce.
"Do customers really order brain sandwiches?" I asked the carhop, a young woman in a pink calico halter top, denim shorts, and a green cotton apron. "Yes," she laughed, "because we're one of the few places that serve 'em this way. They kind of look like a tenderloin. We boil the brains till they're cooked real good, batter them, and fry them."
I sipped a perfectly fabulous chocolate malt in my car at Clem's, noticing that the customers in every adjoining car -- almost all adults over 30 -- were also happily drinking and eating. And smoking cigarettes. In an era where smoking in restaurants is becoming taboo, drive-ins may be the last refuge for those who like a little nicotine with their shakes and curly fries.
One of the longest-lasting national drive-in chains, the Oklahoma-based Sonic, has used carhops to serve burgers and malts (although customers now order through a speaker system connected to parking-slot menus) since 1953. The greater Kansas City metropolitan area features 42 of the brightly colored Sonic Drive-Ins, and each one successfully evokes a less complicated time, when eating in your car was more than a novelty -- it was a rite of summer.
Leaning back on the soft vinyl upholstery of a car, a wax paper-wrapped burger in one hand, a strawberry malt in the other -- all while listening to the radio -- is a blissful all-American summer experience, like baseball games, drive-in movies, and bell-ringing ice cream trucks.