Swing in, pig out, drive off

Burgers, fries and a Coke
In the beginning, drive-in restaurants offered all sorts of food - including chili, tamales and spaghetti - served by carhops. Eventually, the menu turned to hamburgers. Bob’s Big Boy, like this one in Burbank, invented the double-decker.
(Bob Carey / LAT)
Times Staff Writer

GOING to the drive-in! What a breezy, James Dean-ish life! Just tool into a parking slot, order and dine in the front seat of your favorite place!

Apart from being a way to eat, drive-ins served as a center of teenage life, where you could drink “suicide Cokes” splashed with cherry, vanilla, lemon and chocolate syrups while waiting for some guy to challenge another to a drag race. (Whoo!)

We didn’t quite invent the drive-in restaurant in Los Angeles — the Pig Stand in Dallas beat us by a year — but we did do more than anyone to perfect the concept and ensure its spread. After all, we were living in the most car-oriented part of the country, and we did set the standard for what was cool.

In 1922, the Tam O’Shanter in Atwater Village was the first drive-in to hire young women as carhops and serve food on a window tray (originally just a plank that was stuck through one car window and out the other). As the drive-in concept spread, the rest of the country agreed with us that a drive-in had to be eye-catching.

The supreme style was Googie architecture, with its wild cantilevered roofs and mishmash of Space Age and Polynesian motifs. It took its name from Googie’s Coffee Shop at Sunset and Crescent Heights.

In the beginning, drive-ins served all sorts of food, including chile, tamales and spaghetti. After long experience and a lot of laundry bills, the menu inevitably became concentrated on hamburgers.

Now, L.A. is burger town. Where would drive-ins have been without the cheeseburger and the double-deck burger, both invented around here (at the Rite Spot, Pasadena, 1926, and Bob’s Big Boy, Glendale, 1937, respectively)?

Still, none of this would have amounted to much if drive-ins had remained just snack houses. In L.A., they took on an air of Hollywood glamour — movie stars ate at drive-ins. The Brown Derby in Los Feliz had a drive-in section. Now there could be no reason not to tool into that parking slot.

L.A. giveth and L.A. taketh away. In 1948, the significantly named In-N-Out Burger opened in Baldwin Park, and within a few decades the carhop would be replaced by the squawk box and the tray by the cardboard carton. There’s nothing but drive-throughs now.

But you know what? I say they’re still drive-ins.