See Modesto’s five oldest existing drive-in burger joints
Graffiti Summer is in full swing as classic cars hit city streets in droves Friday night for the annual parade.
But all those cars have to go somewhere, right? Back in the good old days, Modesto cruisers would stop at one of the city’s many drive-in burger joints. That tradition continues today as five Modesto drive-in restaurants remain open in their original locations from the 50s and 60s cruising era made famous by native son George Lucas in his film “American Graffiti.”
And those five historic restaurants do more than serve up nostalgia, they also keep cranking out big burgers and tasty shakes. While most — but not all — have given up on the roller-skate wearing servers, they all provide touchstones to Modesto’s collective cruising past.
Some of the city’s iconic Graffiti-era drive-ins like Burges’ at 10th and O streets and Al’s and Felix’s on McHenry Avenue may be gone, but these five restaurants remain ready to serve — just bring your own classic car.
Web’s Drive-In, 625 7th St., 209-524-3539
The oldest existing drive-in restaurant still in its original location is Web’s in downtown Modesto. Opened in July 1954, its debut was heralded with three days of celebration. For years Web’s used the slogan, “Modesto’s First and Finest Original Self-Service Drive-In.” The downtown site has undergone several cosmetic and ownership changes over the year — and changed its name to Web’s Big Ben.
The current owner also runs El Marinero, a Mexican seafood restaurant on Crows Landing Road. While the owner did not return calls for comment, the restaurant still attracts a lunch and dinner crowd. It’s original walk-up self-serve windows have been exchanged for an interior dining room.
A full-page ad run in The Modesto Bee in 1954 touted the new burger joint as “the country’s finest and most modern self-service drive-in.” You could get six hamburgers with “onions, catsup, mustard and Kosher style pickles” for $1. Fries were $0.10 and a “Royal Hot Dog” that promised to be “tasty beyond your wildest dreams” was $0.19.
The advertisement also offered helpful advice, like, “Ladies: It’s cooler, quicker and much easier to serve the family a delicious meal of Web’s hamburgers or hot dogs and a cool glass of nourishing milk.”
The first Web’s opened on McHenry and Orangeburg avenues in September 1953. The 7th and G street location opened 10 months later. The Web’s Burgers on Yosemite Boulevard began construction in 1960 and also remains open.
Meal-On-A-Bun (MOAB), 1228 Tully Road, 209-522-9069
Meal-On-A-Bun (nicknamed MOAB for short) on Tully Road opened November 1954, a few months after the debut of the downtown Web’s. It was the brainchild of founders and owners Sidney and Felicia Cheatham, who had previously owned the popular Walking Chicken restaurant on Paradise Road in the 1940s. Then they opened a drive-in on First and H streets across from Modesto High in the late 40s.
That’s where the restaurant got its name. The late Erv Keller, of Keller’s Gift fame, was a paper salesman and tried to get them as clients. He was handed one of the restaurant’s signature burgers, wrapped completely in paper and pinned with a toothpick, and said, “Now you got a real meal on a bun.” The name stuck, even as the Cheatham’s opened their second location on Tully Road. The First and H street MOAB closed in the late 50s, but the Tully Road location remains open and ready to serve you a classic MOAB quarter-pound burger, still served in a cozy paper wrap.
Eddie Gibson, whose nickname “Fast Eddie” has become synonymous with MOAB, started working at the restaurant as an eighth grader in 1962. His parents bought the restaurant in 1965 from the Young family who had purchased it a few years earlier. In 1968 the interior was remodeled to add a dining room.
Then “Fast Eddie” — another nickname given by a customer who was in a hurry — bought it from them in 1975. Since then he has created an eclectic atmosphere in the restaurant with walls covered with old photos, Modesto memorabilia and other antique finds. A mural of California history in the back dining room was drawn by his sister. Gibson, who turns 71 next month, still works at the restaurant every day and has seen generations come and go with full bellies.
“Everything in here has a story to it,” he said. “It all came in one piece at a time. A lot of them I traded lunch for.”
Scenic Drive-In, 1151 Scenic Drive, 209-577-4040
Opened in 1956, the Scenic Drive-In prides itself as the “Home of the Knock Out Burger,” which it still serves. Original owners Jim and Juanita Fee founded the standalone burger stand and it remained in the family for 50 years. In July 1956, The Bee reported the Fees had taken out a building permit for $10,000 to construct the building and adjacent covered dining patio.
In 2006 the Fee family sold the restaurant to Matthew and Ramcena Gregorian, who have owned it since. The menu remains remarkably unchanged with the Knock Out Burger still leading the charge, complete with avocado, mayo, lettuce, cheese, bacon and so many chopped raw jalapenos your face will definitely sweat.
Local lore says Modesto native and Downey High graduate George Lucas was a regular. The spot’s unusual location, right next door to the cemeteries on Scenic Drive, help to make it one of the city’s most iconic dining spots. The restaurant has had some ups and downs, including a fire in 2015 that closed the stand for six months. But it reopened in March 2016 and has been serving up burgers, fries, hot dogs, shakes and more since.
“It’s a Modesto tradition that we feel blessed to be able to carry on. We promised Juanita’s family we’d keep it all the same and we have. One day our goal is to hope our kids keep this thing going,” said aid Matthew Gregorian, talking about the couple’s two children Andrew, 11, and Aubry, 8.
The family will take part in the Graffiti Classic Car Parade Friday and encourages longtime and past customers to bring old photos and memorabilia of the burger stand to the restaurant. They hope to create a collage celebrating the drive-in’s history for display.
A&W Root Beer Drive-In
A&W Root Beer Drive-In, 1404 G St., 209-522-7700
Opened March 1958, the A&W is the only remaining Graffiti-era drive-in in Modesto that still has roller-skate wearing servers bring your burger and fries right to your car. The franchise was born in Lodi as a roadside root beer stand in 1919. The first restaurant opened in Sacramento in 1923.
By the 1950s the chain expanded across the country and into Canada. The Modesto A&W at the corner of 14th and G streets opened selling burgers, hot dogs and its signature root beer. According to a grand opening ad in The Bee, a root beer would set you back $0.05.
The restaurant went through about three different owners before Johnny Matthews purchased the place in 1996. His wife owns Janet’s Flowers, just across the street. He kept the burger joint’s tradition alive, and has added some of his own, including hosting cruise-in karaoke nights with Elvis impersonators. The free Friday night festivities are a Graffiti Summer staple. Folks bring lawn chairs to sit in the parking lot on hot summer nights and soak up the nostalgia.
Because of its throwback look and servers on skates, the drive-in has become a popular stop for tourists passing through the area —and has even appeared in guide books. Matthews used to have foreign guests write notes on index cards, and he still keeps them all in a binder. You’ll find messages from Russia, Indonesia, England and well beyond.
If you go, be sure to get a root beer float, still served in an ice-cold frosty mug. It’s a meal in itself, really. Then on your way out remember to pet (but don’t feed) the drive-in’s resident cat who is cared for loving by restaurant staff. His name? Root Beer, of course.
Sno-White Drive In, 1841 Yosemite Boulevard, 209-529-3032
After being founded in the 1950s, Sno-White Drive-Ins started to dot the Central Valley landscape. The franchise first came to Modesto in 1961, when it opened at McHenry and Morris avenues. Then in March 1964, a second Sno-White opened in the city on Yosemite Boulevard. It is still operating today.
The McHenry and Morris site is long gone. Another Sno-White on Paradise Road that opened after the Yosemite restaurant is still operating (though it operated under a different name for a while before reverting to a Sno-White). The chain also has locations in Riverbank and Oakdale.
The Setliff family founded and owned the Modesto restaurant, as well as others in the region as the valley’s original Sno-White franchisees. They operated the Yosemite restaurant until 2005, when current owner Adel Asumari purchased it from them. He has leaned heavily into the nostalgia of the place, putting images from Sno-White’s past inside and outside of the building.
Sno-White was originally known for its soft-serve ice cream, hence the name. But it branched into burgers and sandwiches. You can eat in the small inside dining area or outside on the covered patio with a view of the restaurant’s vintage neon sign. When it was erected, according to reports in The Bee at the time, it costs $700. Today, Asumari, said it has to be insured for $25,000.
“This place has memories. People come in and say their father used to bring them. Some people celebrated anniversary here because this is where they went on their first date,” he said. “And then the young crowd, they love the throwback. They’re tired of the same old modernized joints. This is where you can get an old-fashioned style burger.”