Midwest Time-Warp Trips | Midwest Living

Midwest Time-Warp Trips

Enjoy a fun blast from the past at the region's best diners, drive-ins and other spots that celebrate a more carefree era.

Retro in the Midwest

The decades seem to dissolve at places throughout the Midwest: diners with doo-wop on the jukebox, soda fountains with chrome fixtures, theaters that show two movies for less than $10.

We go to these retro spots for the charm. We go for the history. But mostly we go in search of a feeling we thought we'd lost. And we find it--in the sweet mingling of root beer and vanilla ice cream, in the sparkling smile of a waitress on roller skates, or in the silvery flicker of a movie in an open field on a hot summer night.

Click ahead for our picks of Midwest drive-in theaters, drive-in restaurants, soda fountains, diners and other spots where you can turn back the clock.

Favorite Midwest drive-in theaters

Valle Drive-In, Newton, Iowa: Surrounded by corn, Valle (left) feels like the movie-theater version of Field of Dreams. Vintage ads play during intermission. See reviews and ratings. (641) 792-3558; valledrive-in.com

Cherry Bowl Drive-In Theatre, Honor, Michigan: Caramel corn and a strict no-smooching policy give this drive-in near Traverse City a wholesome vibe. For a laugh, call the hotline to hear the owner shout the upcoming features. See reviews and ratings. (231) 325-3413; cherrybowldrivein.com

Midway Drive-In and Diner, Sterling, Illinois: The parking lot at Illinois' longest continually operating drive-in (open since 1950) fits 500, but the first three rows are reserved for small cars. See reviews and ratings. (847) 647-3124; themidwaydrivein.net

Boulevard Drive-In, Kansas City, Kansas: A fabulous marquee and Labor Day car show add retro flair, and the digital sound system (first in the world for a drive-in) is fantastic. See the reviews and ratings. (913) 262-2414; boulevarddrivein.com

Diners: A shared feeling

It's hard to say what makes a diner a diner. Some serve breakfast all day--some don't. Some make a great patty melt, others a great meat loaf and still others, a perfect coconut cream pie. Some play up their retro cred with oldies on the radio and album covers on the walls.

Others don't try at all. They just keep the neon sign working for 70 years and make the same chicken noodle soup as always, so regulars know exactly what to expect.

Every diner has its own personality, but what they share is a feeling. A sense when you walk in that the food will be good, hot and familiar; that the waitress will refill your coffee; and that no one will mind if you order a milk shake with your dinner. In fact, they might get upset if you don't.

Click to the next slide for four recommended Midwest diners.

Favorite Midwest diners

Mickey's Dining Car, Saint Paul: It might not be the cleanest place ever, but you can't beat the time-capsule spirit (or the bean soup) at this classic diner (left). See reviews and ratings. (651) 222-5633; mickeysdiningcar.com

Dawson And Stevens Classic 50's Diner, Grayling, Michigan: Coke memorabilia fills the old pharmacy cabinets at this former drugstore. Try the American Pie, a grilled-cheese with apple pie filling. See reviews and ratings. (989) 348-2111; bottlecapmuseum.com

Nu Grille, Fort Scott, Kansas: Locals talk up the hamburgers with grilled onions, but don't miss the chocolate shakes at this 1946 small-town diner. (620) 223-9949

Cindy's Diner, Fort Wayne, Indiana: Expect to rub elbows with other diners (all 15 of 'em) at this tiny, cash-only lunch counter, where regulars order an egg scramble called The Garbage. See reviews and ratings. (260) 422-1957

Soda fountains: A rite of passage

Soda fountains have a language all their own. Egg cream (seltzer water, chocolate syrup, milk). Black Cow (root beer, chocolate syrup, vanilla ice cream). Green River (lime syrup, soda water). These are universals. But there are also semantic debates. Banana split (pineapple and strawberries, or butterscotch and chocolate?). Tin Roof Sundae (salted peanuts or toffee?).

As with any language, it's easier to learn with a native. Maybe that's why being taken to the soda fountain is a rite of passage. Maybe you recall twirling on a stool next to your mom and nursing a double-dip mint-chip. Or sinking spoons into mounds of marshmallow with your grandpa. Or sharing a malt with a boy from school.

Or perhaps the trip you remember best was the day the tables turned, when you brought your baby to the soda fountain and watched her spin on a stool and take her first lick from a mint-chip cone.

Click to the next slide for four top picks of Midwest soda fountains.

Favorite Midwest soda fountains

Crown Candy Kitchen, St. Louis (Left): Try the 14 percent butterfat ice cream in a butterscotch malt or pecan-topped Crown Sundae. See reviews and ratings. (314) 621-9650; crowncandykitchen.net

Bauder Pharmacy, Des Moines: A secret even to many locals, this nothin'-fancy drugstore and soda fountain serves luscious homemade ice cream. See reviews and ratings. (515) 255-1124; bauderpharmacy.com

Wilson's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, Ephraim, Wisconsin: Many booths at this Door County standby have a jukebox, and cones come with a jelly bean at the bottom to stop the drips. Open seasonally. See reviews and ratings. (920) 854-2041; wilsonsicecream.com

Lagomarcino's Confectionery, Moline, Illinois: Sundaes come with a little pitcher of hot fudge at this beautiful, turn-of-the-century soda shop, complete with marble tabletops and Tiffany-style lamps. See reviews and ratings. (309) 764-1814; lagomarcinos.com

Drive-in restaurants: A meal in the car

Before we all ate on the go, a meal in the car was a civilized affair at a place called the drive-in. It still can be. Try it.

At the drive-in, you park and consider the menu. (And that's important to do, because this is a local restaurant with such hometown favorites as pork cutlet, foamy root beer or fresh strawberry pie.) You chat with the carhop, or you tune in some good music. There's no rush. No burger on your knees or ketchup on your chin. No praying for a red light so you can find a napkin.

Yes, you're eating in your car, but you're not moving. A drive-through is a stop along the way. A drive-in is a destination.

Click to the next slide for four great Midwest drive-ins.

Favorite Midwest drive-in restaurants

Rudy's Drive-In, La Crosse, Wisconsin (Left): Roller-skating carhops don poodle skirts for classic-car nights, and the menu includes a vegetarian walnut burger. Open seasonally. See reviews and ratings. (608) 782-2200; rudysdrivein.com

Lakeview Drive Inn, Winona, Minnesota: Open since 1938, Lakeview hosts weekly cruise nights and serves sweet-potato fries and a surprising variety of burgers (beef, elk or buffalo). Open seasonally. See reviews and ratings. (507) 454-3723; lakeviewdriveinn.com

Original Root Beer Stand, Culver, Indiana: Remember that little tray that attaches to your window? They've got 'em. Ask for a frosty mug to savor the root beer. Open seasonally. See reviews and ratings. (574) 842-2122

Sumburger Drive-in, Chillicothe, Ohio: Eat in your car or order from tableside phones indoors. The signature burger is big, halved and topped with a tangy sauce. See reviews and ratings. (740) 772-1055; sumburger.com

Keeping the retro spirit

Think back on the 1950s. Has there ever been an era we remembered so fondly, even if we were born a generation later (or even if we really know it wasn't quite so perfect)?

So go ahead. Put on those rose-colored glasses and join us in a little toast. Here's to poodle skirts, bobby socks and skinny ties. Here's to cruising in a Chevy with fins, windows down, the dial tuned to the Billboard countdown. Here's to first kisses in high school gymnasiums and teary breakups in the parking lot outside. Here's to the music that changed us all--and that our children and grandchildren still groove to a half-century later.

And here's to a few great Midwest places and events that, with good humor and a heaping dose of nostalgia, keep those memories alive.

Click to the next slide for four of our favorite Midwest retro stops.

Midwest retro destinations

Woodward Dream Cruise, Detroit: The World's Largest Car Event (left) stretches over 16 miles and attracts more than 1.5 million people and 40,000 vehicles. Pack a lawn chair and water. August 16, 2014. See reviews and ratings.  woodwarddreamcruise.com

Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper played their last show here. A small museum recalls "the day the music died," and the Winter Dance Party sells out. See reviews and ratings. (641) 357-6151; surfballroom.com

Back To The 50's Weekend, Saint Paul: Owners love to brag on their "babies" at this huge car show (June 20-22, 2014) with fun extras such as cover bands. See reviews and ratings.  msra.com

Boondocks, Deadwood, South Dakota: Families dig the vintage carnival rides, authentic diner and classic cars at this retro fun park. See reviews and ratings. (605) 578-1186; fiftiesfun.com

(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2011.)

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