Drive-in restaurants still reign supreme
Their delightfully gaudy and bright signs beckon to travelers grown weary from a day of summer heat.
Their sounds and smells are seductive: the crunch of fresh-cut fries, the sizzle and smell of burgers on the grill, the grind of a blender and the pleasing chill of a chocolate shake, and the twirling sweetness of a soft-serve cone.
Mix in a healthy dose of nostalgia and the chance to enjoy it all outdoors on a pleasant evening, and the allure is nearly overpowering.
They're drive-in restaurants, and they're still thriving in South Dakota, well past their 1950s heyday.
During their start, drive-ins were popular because they allowed the customer to stay in their vehicle and eat. An employee came out to the customers' car to take their order and delivered their food back to them.
Over time, they began to evolve into seasonal indoor-outdoor restaurants where food was often ordered through a small window and picked up by the customer.
While the process has changed over time, the menu has stayed largely the same. And at 281 Diner in Stickney, the menu is one of the main reasons patrons keep coming back year after year, according to owner Sharon Crago.
"We have the thickest shakes in the area, and my girls don't skimp on the toppings, either," she said.
For her and husband Roger, business has been good at their small drive-in restaurant along U.S. Highway 281 in Stickney since they bought the place in 2005.
"We can hardly handle it with the two of us," Sharon said.
When the couple opened the restaurant Monday for the season, there was a line of 40 people outside.
Formerly the Raider Roost, the restaurant was built in 1970 and has been a mainstay of summertime in Stickney ever since.
Sharon said children often come over from the nearby city pool for ice cream after they are done swimming.
"Those ice cream cones are always a little bigger than they are supposed to be," she said, laughing.
Tuesday, Mike and Sandy Tuschen could be seen sharing one of those mammoth ice cream cones with their 19-month-old grandson Brooks Blom.
"Everyone here is so friendly and great. We love to come back time and time again," Sandy said.
Sitting in the small dining room where old license plates are nailed to the walls, the trio causally laughed, joked and ate their cones as the sun slowly set behind them.
"I think everyone has that little ice cream place they went to as a kid, and during the summer they want that back," Sharon said. "We are just big kids now, and we still want our ice cream."
Lacey Thomas, a three-year employee at 281 Diner and a Stickney High School junior, was working behind the counter Tuesday. She said the restaurant "feels like home."
"Anyone can sit down and share an ice cream and just talk," Thomas said. "It's not just a place to get food; it's a place to meet with friends and have a good time."
Food items like the Raider burger, an ode to the former high school mascot, and the knuckle sandwich are listed on the small menu that hangs over the counter. Their version of a Blizzard, called an Astro and named for the mixing machine that stirs the ice cream concoction, features more than 20 flavors.
"They make a darn good burger," Mike Tuschen said, "but everything is good here."
Whatever customers decide to order at the 281 Diner, it will more than likely be served with a smile and a "how is your family?"
Even though Mitchell is much bigger than Stickney, a similar small-town atmosphere exists at the Zesto on Sanborn Boulevard.
Chuck Vandever was sitting outside at the small drive-in Wednesday afternoon and said he remembers coming to Zesto after baseball games when he was a child.
Now in his 60s and living in Spearfish, he still comes to Zesto anytime he's in Mitchell in the summer.
"Every time after a game, I would ride my bike down here and get an ice cream cone," Vandever said.
"If I hit a home run that day, my parents would buy me a chocolate shake," he added while he slowly sipped on what is still his favorite treat -- a chocolate shake.
Owner Roxie Ackman said it's stories like Vandever's that make owning the restaurant enjoyable.
"I hear stories like that from people every day," she said. "It was just a huge part of your childhood if you lived around here."
Built 62 years ago, Zesto was the original fast-food restaurant in Mitchell, Ackman said. Other South Dakota cities also have Zestos. Formerly a chain, each Zesto is now privately owned.
"People came here at first because it was fast and it was good," she said.
Now in her 15th year of running the place, Ackman said what makes Zesto so special is the tradition.
"You can get ice cream a lot of places in Mitchell, but people like to come here because it reminds them of their childhood."
At another drive-in, the MT Corner near Woonsocket, the bustle of the city gives way to farmland and highways.
Located at the intersection of state Highways 34 and 37 three miles east of Woonsocket, this drive-in has a unique appeal derived from its rural setting.
Owner Tena Gaer said the location has helped with business.
"We have a lot of people just pull in off the highway because they see our sign," she said.
Shortly after buying the building in 2010, Gaer started having guests autograph the interior walls.
"It's kind of like our own little guestbook; it lets us see who was here and where they are from."
Patrons from as far away as South Africa and Guatemala have come to dine at the seasonal restaurant.
Gaer grew up in Woonsocket and spent many summer evenings going to the drive-in, then called White's Drive-In, during her childhood.
"When the opportunity came up that we could come back and run it, it was too good to pass up. I have so many good memories here, so why wouldn't I want to work here?" Gaer said.
"Our tacos are kind of our signature dish," she added. "Everyone around here calls them Teno's Taco's, but they aren't. We make them ourselves right here."
MT Corner's tacos start with a deep-fried shell that is filled with the customer's choice of meat and topped with homemade taco sauce and mayo instead of sour cream.
The restaurant also boasts 48 flavors of soft-serve ice cream, including Gaer's favorite, pumpkin pie.
At Shakes'n'Stuff in Mitchell, the reason to come to the drive-in is contained in the name.
"Each shake we make is done individually, and they are really thick," said owner Cindy Thompson. "We try to use top-ofthe-line, quality ingredients in everything we make."
According to Thompson, people like to come to her drive-in because "it's like holding onto a piece of the past."
"Most people have really good childhood memories of going to these places, and they want to hang on to that."
Thompson grew up in Woonsocket and also remembers going to White's Drive in when she was a child.
At the Ranch House Drive-In in Gregory, owner Mona Taggert said "everything" is a specialty. She especially boasted about the drivein's many different kinds of burgers, Indian tacos and homemade eggrolls.
Taggert said it's nostalgia and good food that keeps her customers coming back.
"When you eat here, it's like a trip through the past," she said. "It's more than just a place to eat. It's your past, and for some people, it's like a home away from home."
A list of some of the drive-in-style restaurants in the Mitchell area:
Zesto, 422 S. Sanborn Blvd., Mitchell.
Shakes'n'Stuff, 1701 W. Havens Ave., Mitchell.
281 Diner, 26173 U.S. Highway 281, Stickney.
DJ's Drive Inn, 306 Davenport St., Plankinton.
Boom's Drive In, 606 E. Seventh St., Platte.
Ranch House Drive In, 719 E. Highway 18, Gregory.
Frosty King, just north of the Interstate 90 exit, Kimball.
MT Corner, three miles east of Woonsocket on state Highway 34.
Sal's Drive Inn, Main Street in Letcher.