The coronavirus pandemic has the restaurant industry reeling.
Still, when warm weather arrived several months ago, one small segment of the dining-out universe started drawing (socially distant) crowds.
“We’ve been busier than normal,” said Jim Wagner, who has been running Wagner’s Drive-In in Brooklyn Park for 35 years.
The uptick makes sense: At a time when consumers may be leery of congregating indoors, drive-ins transform cars into dining rooms, and also offer the option of open-air picnics.
Since drive-ins are basically short-order kitchens with carports, their menus follow fairly predictable formats, relying heavily on burgers, hot dogs, soft serve ice cream, root beer and other nostalgic, moderately priced fare.
Invariably, the premises will be equipped with a deep fryer that busily cranks out fried chicken, French fries, onion rings and other calorie-laden delicacies.
It’s fortunate that Twin Citians can continue to patronize drive-ins. That’s because, like their movie-screening counterparts, drive-in restaurants have been disappearing, victims of rising land values and evolving consumer tastes.
Still, there have been encouraging signs: In June, after a five-year hiatus, the lights came back on at the Galaxy Drive In in St. Louis Park.
Follow along for the lowdown on seven Twin Cities drive-in options. Remember, heed any posted rules regarding social distancing; they’re there for the health and welfare of workers and customers.
And please, tip generously.
Clays Galaxy Drive In
“Every day I would drive by and I grew tired of seeing this place closed,” operator Mark Saliterman told the Star Tribune last month. Saliterman, the owner of Clays Restaurant in Rockford, has given the Galaxy a reboot, and it’s a welcome renaissance for a summer hangout that had been sitting dark and forlorn since 2015.
Location: 3712 Quebec Av. S., St. Louis Park, 952-277-7777, claysgalaxy.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Catchiest asset: In 2011, owner Steve Schussler (of Rainforest Cafe fame) bought what had been a humble drive-in (the building dates to 1951) and gave the place a flashy remake worthy of Reno. It’s as gaudy and fun-loving as ever.
Don’t miss: There’s obviously a maestro working the deep fryer, because the Cajun-seasoned deep-fried pickles, fried soft pretzels, battered-and-fried cheese curds, mini corn dogs and delicate onion rings are all attention-getters.
Get out of the car: The cramped site manages to squeeze in a handful of outdoor seating options.
Perks: The well-dressed hot dogs, Italian sausages and bratwurst (and the Dreamsicle floats!) are highlights.
Final detail: Take the dog along, because four-legged friends are eligible for free ice cream cones.
Second-generation owner Angela Fida announced last fall that she was selling the place, but that was then, this is now. “I thought someone was interested, but then COVID hit, and the deal went sideways,” she said. When a subsequent offer also fell through, Fida decided to hang onto the property and reopen. “I can live with my Plan B,” she said. “I’m happy to be here.”
Location: 1440 E. Minnehaha Av., St. Paul, 651-776-3470
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue.-Sat., noon-8 p.m. Sun.
Catchiest asset: The Italian staples — spaghetti, rigatoni, meatballs — are not what drive-in devotees might expect to encounter. Take home a souvenir in the form of a pint, quart or gallon of the kitchen’s spaghetti sauce.
Don’t miss: The fresh banana malts are a summertime treat of the first rank, and the half-pound, California-style Burger-Ette is a signature item for a reason.
Get out of the car: A smattering of outdoor tables occupy a freshly renovated patio.
Perks: An Italian sausage sandwich smothered in fried peppers and melted mozzarella and dip cones in three flavors (chocolate, cherry, birthday cake) are just some of the many happy surprises on Fida’s menu.
Final detail: Pay no attention to Google, which states that the 69-year-old business is permanently closed. Obviously, it’s not.
The Drive In
For Twin Citians, the journey to this warm-weather institution is part of the fun, especially the Instagram-worthy views for those headed north from Stillwater on Hwy. 95. The business dates to 1956, and Wade and Carol Vitalis bought the place in 1988.
Location: 572 Bench St., Taylors Falls, Minn., 651-465-7831, taylorsfallsdrivein.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Catchiest asset: The gigantic, rotating sign shaped like a Frostop Root Beer mug is one of summer’s great smile-inducers (the housemade root beer is still served in heavy glass mugs, hurrah). The carhops’ pink poodle skirts are another amusingly nostalgic touch.
Don’t miss: The grilled-to-order burgers earn full marks for notably juicy beef patties and top-notch buns. Still, it’s the Pizza Burger — a pork sausage/ground beef patty, smothered in marinara and provolone cheese — that sticks out. For those debating crinkle or sweet potato fries, choose the former.
Get out of the car: The well-tended setting includes plenty of outdoor seating.
Perks: There’s a mini-golf course on the premises, the parks along the ultra-scenic St. Croix River are close by and it’s a five-minute drive to the Franconia Sculpture Park (franconia.org).
Final detail: The Vitalis family also operates drive-ins in two nearby Wisconsin towns: Grantsburg (133 Hwy. 70, 1-715-463-2056, grantsburgdrivein.com) and Milltown (125 Main St. W., 1-715-825-3389, milltowndrivein.com).
Minnetonka Drive In
This hallowed Lake Minnetonka destination is synonymous with both “summer” and the Bennyhoff family. Owner Dave Bennyhoff’s parents opened this hot spot as an A&W in 1961; his first job, at age 9, was washing glass root beer jugs. The name went from A&W to Minnetonka in 1985.
Location: 4658 Shoreline Drive, Spring Park, 952-471-9383, minnetonkadrivein.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.
Catchiest asset: The deeply refreshing root beer, with its hints of vanilla, is crafted on the premises.
Don’t miss: The Minnetonka Twin, a double-patty cheeseburger boasting all the right finishing touches, is a direct descendant of A&W’s “Papa” burger. But the menu also includes some unexpected entries, including gyros, slow-cooked barbecue ribs, a sloppy Joe, deep-fried cheese curds and fish (cod) and chips. Fried chicken is sold by the bucket, and the crinkle fries are superb.
Get out of the car: There’s a long row of picnic tables.
Perks: A prime location on the Dakota Rail Regional Trail makes the Minnetonka an ideal biking and hiking pit stop. Back Channel Brewing Co. (4787 Shoreline Drive, backchannelbrewing.com), complete with dockside patio, is located across the street.
Final detail: Thursday is the night for classic cars and hot rods.
Owners Vickie and Mike Mirenda took title of this former A&W in 1982, and their attention to detail is demonstrated in their extensive, appealing menu and their immaculate, family-friendly surroundings.
Location: 115 Babcock Blvd., Delano, 763-972-2572, thepepperminttwist.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue.-Sun.
Catchiest asset: The think-pink color scheme, for sure, although Teddy Bear Park, the kids’ play area, is pretty swell.
Don’t miss: The fresh raspberry shakes deserve some kind of hall-of-fame award, and well-crafted burgers (the “Smoke House” bacon-Cheddar burger is a pinnacle experience) and lavishly topped hot dogs rank right up there.
Get out of the car: Kudos to the grassy, wide-open seating area and its many tables.
Perks: Since we can’t get our fix of carnival novelties at the Minnesota State Fair this year, it’s awfully thoughtful of the Peppermint Twist to feature battered-and-fried mac-and-cheese bites, bite-size tacos and fries smothered in Sriracha-fueled chili sauce.
Final detail: No credit cards; payment is cash or check (remember those?) only.
This Oklahoma-based mega-chain operates 3,600-plus locations and landed in the Twin Cities in 2012. The company’s corporate cookie-cutter quality is a world apart from the funky charm of its mom-and-pop competitors, but there are compensations, including tidy settings and a parade of seasonal, price-conscious promotions.
Location: 4910 Central Av. NE., Columbia Heights, 763-746-9525; 2101 American Blvd. W., Bloomington, 952-746-9495; 1960 Suburban Av., St. Paul, 651-379-9898; 4233 Egan Road, Savage, 952-746-8120; 229 Carson St., Elk River, 763-404-8284, sonicdrivein.com
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Catchiest asset: The Space Age name is a play on the original owner’s slogan, “Service with the speed of sound.”
Don’t miss: The menu doesn’t veer too far from the Wendy’s-McDonald’s-Burger King orbit, but the burgers are a cut above their Golden Arches brethren; ditto the fried chicken sandwich, with its crisp, peppery coating and juicy, abundant meat. Skip the limp, greasy fries.
Get out of the car: There’s a small patio area.
Perks: The food arrives in a flash, shockingly so. Kids will love the comics-tinted, sugar rush-inducing slushies.
Final detail: Breakfast is served, a drive-in rarity. The selection isn’t extensive — it’s basically French toast sticks, or burritos and sandwiches with eggs, bacon and/or sausage — but it offers a respite from the Egg McMuffin routine.
Proprietor Jim Wagner is another second-generation drive-in proprietor, having grown up at the former Wagner’s (now Clays Galaxy Drive In) when his parents owned that classic St. Louis Park property. When Wagner purchased this former A&W in 1985, he added his family’s well-known name. In the intervening years, this textbook example of a nice guy has carefully cultivated legions of fans by maintaining a wonderfully old-school sensibility.
Location: 7000 W. Broadway, Brooklyn Park, 763-533-8262, wagnersdrivein.com
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Catchiest asset: Wagner invokes the nearly extinct use of the word “broasted” when referencing the crispy-skinned chicken he prepares in a vintage fryer/pressure cooker (his proprietary eight-spice seasoning blend is another plus). Look for it to return to the menu soon.
Don’t miss: The ¼-pound burgers, fashioned from well-seasoned Angus chuck and cooked on a flat-top grill, are faultless examples of the drive-in genre. The sandwiches (thinly shaved roast beef, Reuben, breaded pork cutlet) are another strong category.
Get out of the car: There are a few outdoor tables.
Perks: Proximity is everything. Once surrounded by farm fields, Wagner’s now feels as if it’s conveniently located in the middle of the city.
Final detail: Wagner prides himself, with justification, on his soup- and chili-making abilities.