If you'd like a brief step back in time (and right now, who wouldn't), I have just the place for you to go: The A&W Drive-In in Spring Valley (730 N. Broadway Ave., also Highway 63). One of the most retro places around, it will take you back decades. There are even car hops and trays that fit on the car window. When was the last time you saw that? It has been serving up root beer and hamburgers since 1956 — almost 64 years — and like most of us of a certain age, it shows, but only ever so slightly.
The original owners were Roger and Marge Simpson, who then passed it on to their son, Mark, and his wife, Kathy. They sold it to current owner Tom Evanoff in 2016.
Evanoff describes the original building as being more of a shack-like structure. Over the years, a dining room was added as well as an overhang where the cars drive in, park and order. Right now, because of COVID-19, the dining room is closed and the window trays are not being used. No problem. There is also a large grassy area with picnic tables where you can take your food.
If it hadn't been so cold and windy, I would have eaten my Papa Burger there. Overseeing the area is a large statue of what looks like a character out of a Charles Schultz Peanuts cartoon. Evanoff calls it Papa Bear, but it's also referred to as Root Beer Guy. He's been holding a frosty root beer in one hand and a hamburger high in the air in the other since 1973. It's definitely a landmark.
Root beer is of course the big seller since that is what made the chain's reputation. Interestingly, it is made on-site, almost every day by Evanoff himself. He explained that the base comes in 5-gallon containers and then goes into a large electric mixing machine where a special water is added. Originally, it was mixed using a paddle that combined the two. The menu is very complete, including several kinds of hamburgers, but also French fries, onion rings, cheese curds (made from real Wisconsin cheddar), a variety of salads and broasted chicken.
Does he have plans for expansion since he owns the large piece of property there?
"I'd like to expand the dining room and add more tables to the picnic area, but I'm not thinking beyond that. It's been suggested that I add a drive-thru, but I'm not ready to do that yet," he said.
Has COVID-19 affected his business?
"Not really, because of what we are," he said. "Actually, we are busier than ever. The one problem I do have is getting help."
A&W at 100 years is probably one of the oldest continuous fast-food restaurants. It was started in June 1919 as a root beer stand in Lodi, Calif., by Roy Allen. He was joined in the venture by Frank Wright. They weren't sure what to name it, so they used the initials of their last names, A and W.
The business was so successful they began selling franchises, thereby becoming the first franchise restaurant in the nation. Another first they claim: the first to serve a bacon cheeseburger, in 1963. That does seem questionable, but food historians can't prove otherwise. Still ...
So, if you're looking for a little destination drive with a treat at the end, head to Spring Valley. The A&W hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, but my advice is to go soon, as Evanoff closes it from right after Thanksgiving to mid-February.
Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to email@example.com.