Recently, a regional edition (I think) of Southern Living magazine, a "lifestyle" publication focusing on cooking, travel, architecture, and gardening in the U.S. South, published an article about a drive-in restaurant in my home town.
I'm posting a copy of the article below. El's is a real American drive-in, a classic. It might serve fast food, but it's fast food that is carefully prepared using fresh ingredients. To get served, you drive your car into a big unlined parking lot, parking any way you please.
A "car hop" comes out to your car and takes your order. The menu is printed on a big lighted sign mounted on the front of the little concrete block building where the food is cooked. One thing that has changed at El's since it opened in 1959 is that they no longer attach a metal tray to your car window with the food on it. Customers would steal the trays, or complain that the tray support had scratched the paint on their car door. Now El's car hops just bring your food out in a paper bag.
In 1959, I was 10 years old. So I grew up with El's hamburgers, shrimp burgers, oyster burgers, pizza burgers, BBQ sandwiches, and of course French fries. El's Super Burger is two beef patties on a bun garnished with mustard, chopped onions, chili, and coleslaw. These days, not many restaurants still put chili and coleslaw on hamburgers. Maybe they never did.
Have you ever had a shrimp burger? An oyster burger? Those are a pile of fried shrimp or oysters on a soft bun, garnished with coleslaw and ketchup. I wonder if Elvin invented them. You can still get such a "burger" today, and people love them. These days, El's son Mark owns and operates the restaurant. He hasn't changed the menu.
El's serves soft drinks, milkshakes, milk, iced tea, and beer. Just having beer on the menu makes it different from more modern, franchised, fast food restaurants. It's funny that they can serve beer to people who obviously are going to back on the road again as soon as they finish eating. If you don't want beer or a sweet drink, you can always order a glass of milk.
El's name was Elvin Franks. His sister, June, was our next door neighbor for at least 40 years, during my whole childhood (and beyond). She and her husband Jack helped Elvin and his wife Helen get the restaurant going back in the late 1950s. Before opening El's, Elvin had been a partner in another local institution, Dom-El's restaurant on Bogue Banks, at the beach. Dom-El's became Dom's when El went into business for himself, and it went out of business decades ago.
Helen is the only one of the people I just mentioned who is still living. She no longer works in the restaurant, of course. But back then, she did. She and El ordered and used fresh ground beef every day, forming the hamburger patties themselves as they got orders for them. They didn't use frozen patties of mystery meat. And they made a good basic coleslaw from fresh heads of cabbage. Helen was very particular about the way onions for the burgers needed to be sliced.
It was all a very American experience. The whole family would drive out to El's in a big Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Plymouth, or Ford sedan and eat dinner in the car, being careful not to spill ketchup, mustard, or Coca-Cola on the upholstery. Then they'd go to the drive-in movie a few miles west and watch a cartoon and a western. We used to stretch cheese cloth across the car window frames so that we wouldn't get too many mosquito bites while we were watching the movie. It was too hot to roll the windows up.
At El's, there were always sea gulls in the parking lot. People would throw them a French fry, a chunk of ground beef, or a fried shrimp or oyster. That encouraged them. They would also, however, leave splotches of you-know-what on the hood, roof, and trunk of your car. It was part of the El's experience.