Mom and pop restaurants, cafes, diners and drive-ins – joining together to bring travelers one of the most important elements of any trip: road food!
Following WW I, thousands of mom and pop restaurants cropped up along America’s highways to feed the growing masses of automotive tourists. By 1930, with nearly 23 million cars on the road, mom and pop restaurants became an essential part of the roadside experience.
Although suffering a set-back during WW II as travelers were faced with gas rationing and travel prohibitions, mom and pop roadside eateries bounced back in the late 1940s, continuing to flourish through the 1950s.
We’ll turn our spotlight here on diners and drive-ins with a brief history of their role in America’s passion for automotive travel.
Originally operated from horse drawn lunch wagons and converted street-railway cars, diners were a wonder of compact design that came into their own during the 1930s. With the better diners offering a full menu of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, diners were enormously popular with a broad range of customers looking for moderately priced, well cooked meals. Men, women, rich, poor – all found their place at the diner.
Making it easy for entrepreneurs to set up shop, fully equipped diners could be ordered direct from manufacturers for quick assembly wherever a slice of available land could be found. Set back a few yards from the highway or tucked in next to a motor court, diners prided themselves on clean, efficient service for travelers needing a quick meal before heading back on the road.
By the late 1940s, diners had evolved from the traditional street-car style to one of streamlined elegance featuring stainless steel, shining chrome and neon lights beckoning travelers from the road.
In the 1950s, the gleam of the roadside diner began to fade as travelers looking for even more speed and convenience shifted their sights to the drive-in restaurant.
Although drive-in restaurants had been around in one form or another since the 1920s, it was the growing popularity of female carhops in the late 1930s that started to push drive-ins onto center stage. Carhops dressed in uniforms ranging from the demure to the downright sassy added to the fun. Combining the flair of the car hops with great food and great service made possible the ultimate car culture convenience – dining behind the wheel.
By the 1950s, drive-ins, with their eye catching architecture were in full swing. Although many of the great drive-ins have been lost over the years, a May 1956 Diner Drive-In magazine reports that the editorial director of the National Safety Council praised drive-ins as a means of averting “highway hypnosis” and saving lives by breaking up the monotony of the highway. Drive-ins saving lives – absolutely!
The 1950s also saw a huge change in the way people ordered their food. The carhops that had been such an essential part of the dining experience were pushed out by modern technology and replaced at drive-ins with new electronic ordering equipment like the Dine-A-Mike, the Fone-A-Chef, and the Electro-Hop to name a few. These systems featured illuminated menu boards, push button speakers, and “rakish styling.”
In a March 1959 article “Is Electronic Ordering Worth It?” drive-in owners weighed in on the pressure to modernize. One supporter reported that an electronic ordering system with illuminated menus he’d installed had cut labor costs by 50% while increasing customer volume by 25%. Another owner reported that, “the electronic ordering system took away our personal touch, we lost our customers.”
As the modernization debate continued through the 1950s, franchises and fast food chains entered the picture. Unable to keep up with the even faster service of drive-through restaurants, drive-ins began their gradual decline from popularity.
Luckily, there exists an incredible group of diner and drive-ins fans who work to preserve structures and businesses that still exist…and are willing to share their suggestions for great places to stop along the road!
The Vintage Roadside gift shop offers items featuring authentic graphics from the heyday of diners, drive-ins, restaurants, and cafes of the 1930s – 1960s, celebrating their history and the exploration of the open road.