28 Aug Cheeseburgers (and Shakes) in Paradise
The diner and drive-in scene in Central Oregon provides a mega-dose of nostalgia. Imagine onion rings delivered by roller-skating carhops, silver canisters with your favorite malted milkshake, and shiny red booths big enough to hold a cheerleading squad. Our version of cheeseburger paradise is these four drive-in diners, which boast eats and ambiance that bring the past into the present. On these menus, you won’t find portabella mushrooms on ciabatta buns. But you will find a haven for simpler food, a simpler era and neighborly conversation with folks you may see in the same seats tomorrow. “Comfort food” doesn’t even come close to describing this stroll back in dining time.
Pilot Butte Drive In
917 NE Greenwood Ave., Bend
7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily
Driving east on Greenwood, your attention might be focused on Pilot Butte rising up before you. But in your periphery, something beckons on the right: the timeless Pilot Butte Drive In.
With its classic peaked roof and drive-up parking spots, the building looks like an A&W—because it once was. But instead of Papa and Mama Burgers, Pilot Butte has been offering its own dazzling drive-in options since 1983. Pilot Butte’s bacon cheeseburger, made from Daily’s Bacon and Angus beef, is the joint’s most popular menu item. For the super hungry, try the Pilot Butte Burger; at 18 ounces, it’s as big as the plate it’s served on. For the famished at breakfast, get the chicken fried steak and eggs—it requires not just one but two plates.
Though this diner serves no alcohol, during happy hour (5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. every day) you can get a mini burger and all the fixins for $4. One booth of happy-hour regulars has been coming here since the A&W days. They say the Pilot Butte fries are “crisp and potato-y,” and that they love to eat them with the signature garlic-pepper sauce. Bill Falconer, who bought the place in 2007 from the original owners, says, “We did everything in our power to keep it just the same.” Dine in, eat in your car or, if you’re a true Bendite, order a burger and Jamocha shake to go and hike right up Pilot Butte.
Sno Cap Drive In
380 W Cascade Ave., Sisters
10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Friday
10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
When I told someone in San Francisco that I lived in Sisters, she asked, “Have you had a marionberry shake from Sno Cap?” That’s how memorable they are.
Sno Cap is an iconic drive-in that isn’t a drive-in at all. With just a few booths inside and a smattering of picnic tables outside, the place defines cozy. There’s usually a line out the door for food and at the walk-up window for ice cream and shakes.
Sno Cap serves your usual diner/drive-in fare cooked to order, but the 38 flavors of ice cream are their claim to fame. “I can’t sleep thinking about new flavors,” says Lacy Weeks, whose grandparents bought the spot in 1978. “I have three new ones in my head right now.” She makes nearly all of the flavors from scratch, and churns out a mere six gallons at a time on an old ice cream maker. Sno Cap is also famous for their fry sauce. “That’s my grandmother’s secret recipe,” says Weeks, as her stepdaughter flips burgers in the background. And if you’re counting, that makes Sno Cap a fourth-generation drive-in.
493 NE Third St., Prineville
6 a.m. to 9 p.m., summer
7 a.m. to 8 p.m., rest of the year
If the Fonz pulled up on his Triumph, I have the feeling no one in Tastee Treet would look up from their country scramble. Located right on the main drag in Prineville, this local landmark celebrates cars, community and good food. The joint is divided in two: the “teen side” has shiny red and white booths, and the “adult side” has a mesmerizing agate-encrusted counter in the shape of a horseshoe. The patio is the perfect place to enjoy their popular Mountain Burger—a three-quarter pounder with LTO (in diner jargon: lettuce, tomato and onions) that’s a favorite for sharing with one or more fellow diners.
Built in 1957, Tastee Treet is now operated by Prineville local Jana Rhoden. When it went up for sale 12 years ago, she bought it, “not as an investment, but because I didn’t want to see it become Carl’s Jr.” Rhoden added the drive-through window and gluten-free options, including cinnamon buns, pancakes, hamburger buns and desserts. Rhoden’s salads and desserts are homemade and the fries are hand-cut. The menu changes daily, featuring new main dishes, soups and shakes. Oh, happy days.
Dandy’s Drive In
1334 NE 3rd St., Bend
10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Come to Dandy’s for the roller skaters, but stay for the shakes. Try the s’more shake in the summer and eggnog during the holidays. (Or make your own concoction; they encourage it.) Stay for the burgers, too—the Grand Dandy, made with two meat patties, is the hands-down favorite. And don’t forget the onion rings and the rapture-inducing fry sauce.
You might miss Dandy’s while driving down Highway 97 because a lava-walled exterior subtly hides this gem. Without a dining area or bathrooms, you have no option but to stay in your car—and a sign reminds you to do so. Signs also remind you that only greenbacks are accepted; plastic is so tomorrow. I asked diners in a Mercedes why they come to Dandy’s: “It’s better and cheaper.” Not for the skaters? “They’re fun, too.”
Fun indeed. Ciara Hogue of Bend has been ordering Lil Dandys (small hamburgers) here since she was a kid. She didn’t know how to skate when she got her carhop job four years ago. Now she pirouettes, stops on a dime and delivers bagged meals with a smile and the poise of an Olympic pro.
If you squint and dial in some Motown on the car radio it could be 1968, when Dandy’s was founded. The place has been owned since 1980 by Bill DeGree and is now managed by his son Taylor. The drive-in car trays went by the wayside in the 70s, but the skaters roll on in timeless grace.