I had a three-generational lunch break this week, that included my son, Tom, and granddaughter, Addie. We went to Carl’s Drive-In, where the burgers are flat, lacy, and served with nostalgia. It was between 1:30 and 2 o’clock. Still the place was packed with customers, many standing behind those lucky enough to find a counter seat on one of the 16 swivel stools.
Carl’s Drive-In hosts an eclectic bunch. In what could be a scene from Back to the Future, the woman behind the counter looks like Aunt Bee and the well-suited fellow chowing on a cheese burger is a dead ringer for Mr. Drysdale. A guy on the far end is dressed like Norton and the gal waiting for my seat could’ve been Blanche Devereaux.
A Burger Is Born
I was introduced to Carl’s some years ago by a native St. Louisan, a retiree who still made an annual pilgrimage to the landmark on Manchester Road. The drive-in’s many fans are unfazed by such upstarts as 5 Star Burger with their juicy, half-pound patty smothered in trendy toppings, bulging from a designer bun.
A smashed burger at Carl’s starts out about the size of a golf ball. When flatten it resembled a smear on the grill, its edges becoming filigreed before being flipped. Despite the abuse on the griddle, the flavor remains intact.
Menu, decor and dinnerware are typical 1950s vintage. Old-time flavors bubble up from the custom-brewed IBW root beer. Plastic bowls hold steaming diner-style chili; fries arrive in a paper boat; and ketchup in a pleated pill cup.
While many Yelp comments praise the food, they pan the service. Yes, the women behind the counter can sometimes be a bit grumpy. I think it’s part of their shtick, like the soup seller on Seinfeld. So if you want a hamburger learn the drill: lineup, order, sit, eat, pay, leave. (Cash only.)
The Flat Burger Lives On
Chef J . Kenji Lopez Alt—whom I quote with frequency and admiration on this blog—called Carl’s double cheese burger one of the Eleven Best Things he ate on his cross county road trip. So why does Carl’s Drive-In have so many fans of all ages, palates, and walks of life? How do they survive the griddle wars against the many “burger barons” challenging their simplicity?
Here’s how I see it: In an uncertain world, there’s comfort in knowing a bit of Americana remains. Despite the turmoils of modern life, Carl’s remains unscathed. Even when the place sold last year, nothing changed.
The future of the flat, flipped burger served on a paper plate with a long dill pickle is secure. What a relief!
Carl’s Drive-In, 9033 Manchester Rd. in Brentwood. Open: Tue-Sat 11a-8p. Trivia: The place opened in 1951 as Breeden’s Good Food Drive-In, was sold in 1959 and became Carl’s Drive-In and changed hands again in 2015.