Nostalgia is to food as Florida is to: a) retirement; b) hurricanes; c) Disney World; d) election fraud; f) all of the above. Yes, some things are just inextricably linked in the mind.
For example: a soft-serve zebra cone dipped in cherry hard shell coating takes me right back to the summer before seventh grade when I lived on Madison Street in the old North End of Colorado Springs. After a long, hot, late-summer day of pelting the neighbor kids with apples, listening to Black Flag records and shooting bottle rockets at cars from the parking lot at Penrose Hospital, my friends and I would ride our skateboards over to The Drive-In and have ourselves one of those cool, refreshing mountains of sugar that rose from the wafer cones like beacons of youthful liberty. Then, as the waning light of impending autumn gave way to twilight, the way childhood was slowly giving way to adolescence, we'd wipe the sticky vestiges of youthful innocence from our fingers and go smoke some clove cigarettes, drink our parents' liquor and look for girls to make out with.
Nearly unchanged after almost 60 years, The Drive-In, at 2309 N. Weber St., is one of the last bastions of unabashed 1950s Colorado Springs nostalgia. And along with Cy's Drive-In and BJ's Velvet Freeze, The Drive-In is still proudly preserving a little strip of our local memory lane. The giant soft-serve ice cream cone sign, the neon hamburger, the blue paint, the sliding "order" and "pick up" windows, and the traditional menu of hamburgers, hotdogs, fries, onion rings, shakes, sundaes and sodas -- aside from the fact that the cars parked in front of it have changed, everything's just as it was 50 years ago.
"It's like taking a step back in time -- you get to go back and relive your childhood," said Chris Bettendorf, the new owner of The Drive-In. "Basically, it's just keeping history alive. And there aren't of whole lot of places left."
Bettendorf, a nurse who also owns and operates the The Little Market (a charming throwback corner store) at Prospect Street and Willamette Avenue, decided to buy the greasy spoon for equally nostalgic reasons: Her mother, Betty Nance, owned The Drive-In from 1978 to 1994.
"If you were in the family, then you were required to help out," said Bettendorf, "if nothing else, out of guilt." Under her mother's management, she added, "You had to act the way you were supposed to act or you weren't allowed to come there." Now, Bettendorf and her children are running the place.
Under the management of the past few owners, the joint apparently fell into disrepair, and Bettendorf and her family are now busily cleaning the place up, clearing things out and taking the menu back to basics with a few new additions.
Most notable among the very few menu changes is the addition of runzas, traditional German-Russian buns stuffed with meat, cabbage, onions and spices. According to Bettendorf, runzas are actually called "bidochs" or "bierocks," but became known as runzas in Nebraska where they were fed to workers in the cornfields. These homemade "hot pockets" are reason enough to make trip to The Drive-In for a quick lunch or a weekend snack.
Also new to the menu are the Bettendorf family barbecue pork (or beef, depending on the market) sandwiches. Nothing but meat, barbecue sauce, spices and a bun, these sandwiches are as sandwiches should be: simple and flavorful.
The chili and the sloppy Joe's are also homemade now, and Bettendorf uses Kaiser rolls from the family-owned Serrani Bread Company for the hamburgers. And the sausages are from Sara Sausages in Monument.
Other subtle changes include using actual fruit in the shakes instead of flavorings, the reintroduction of "krunch koat" (a peanut brittle-ish topping), and the elimination of a few items like funnel cakes and pretzels.
Beyond the good-'n'-greasy grill items, most people will still head to The Drive-In for their ice-cream menu. Bettendorf has returned to using the old-school hand mixers for the shakes and malts and features unusual flavors like butterscotch chip (a shake with the hard-shell coating mixed in so that it crumbles into little chips), cappuccino and peanut butter.
For true sugar junkies (kids mostly), The Drive-In offers the totally bizarre "deep powder" cone topping. Created by one of the previous owners, deep powder, the sugary mix used to make Slushies, is sprinkled on top of ice cream. With flavors ranging from bubble gum to blue raspberry, it's like eating a tart, "super, super powerful Kool-Aid mix," as Bettendorf describes it. While this likely won't appeal to adults, the Pixy-Stik loving kids will gobble it down if parents are willing to watch their children go into sugar shock.
For the truly indulgent patron less-inclined to such direct infusions of artificially flavored sweets, The Drive-In offers the slightly more sophisticated Boston soda, a shake with a sundae on top.
Beyond a few minor changes, The Drive-In is still the same "old-time good fun that may not be good for you, but it's good," said Bettendorf. "It was that way when you were a kid and it's that way now."
-- Noel Black
2309 N. Weber St.
Fall hours: Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m. Grill closes at 7:30 p.m.