When I was a kid, my mom and I perfected the technique for making and eating root beer floats. I use the word “eating” deliberately, because the dish we concocted was more suitable for dessert or Sunday supper than as a beverage to accompany a hot dog. After cramming multiple scoops of vanilla ice cream into tall glasses, we slowly drizzled in root beer, rarely able to fit in more than a quarter of the bottle. The fizzy soda, pooling in the few crevices, reacted with the scoops of creamy ice cream, crystallizing the edges to form a rich root beer granita (though it would be years before we learned that foreign word). With long spoons, we scraped off and ate the icy edges, occasionally digging deeper to indulge in a full mouthful of vanilla cream. As the crystallized root beer-ice cream gave way to our spoons, we’d pour in a bit more soda, eating and slurping until the bottle and the glasses were empty.
Recent visits to Ypsilanti’s vintage drive-ins stirred up this memory of childhood floats. While Ann Arbor has been overrun with trendy upmarket eateries and student fast-food chains, Ypsilanti has preserved a remarkable number of restaurants whose architecture and menus are scarcely changed from the middle of the last century. Even after Kluck’s closed a couple of years ago, the city still boasts at least three places with “curb service.” Unfortunately, paper bags and Styrofoam have replaced most of the trays and glass mugs, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had at Ypsilanti’s drive-ins.
Although Bill’s Drive-In, a tiny yellow shack on East Michigan Avenue, doesn’t offer root beer floats, it does sell the area’s best root beer, which you can buy by the icy mug if you stay, or by the glass or gallon to take home. Rich, smoky, maple-ly, it’s fabulous. To go with your root beer, order a chili dog with onions and mustard. (You may get cheese if you must.) The chili, though light on burger, is tomatoey and a bit spicy, truly unique and a perfect counterpoint–in terms of both flavor and proportion–to the dog and bun. Bill’s also sells plain dogs, loose burgers, and potato chips if you require a side–and that’s the entire menu. Carhops, who materialize immediately once you park, will recite that menu and bring your order on a tray or in a to-go bag. And lunch will cost you almost nothing.
Roy’s Squeeze Inn, just across the street, makes you smile just to look at it. A tiny building fronted with windows and enclosing a half-moon counter with stools, this joint offers the usual drive-in fare. You can eat in or, if you park near the door or facing those windows, a waitress will come out to take your order.
Roy’s features the Big Squeeze–an eight-ounce coarsely ground fresh burger, cooked well done on a flattop and layered on a soft bun with tomato, lettuce, and mayo–a big messy, greasy, juicy sandwich my husband inhaled. The same coarsely ground beef, mixed with too little spice and no sauce, overwhelmed the chili dog; and I would definitely avoid the orange cheese. Coleslaw is standard issue, but the seasoned fries are thick wedges coated and fried crispy.
I was truly disappointed in the barbecue pork sandwich. Made from slow-roasted pork, it should have been delicious, but the meat had been cooked without salt, and the bright red sauce poured over the chopped meat was overly sweet. Next time, I’ll order the sandwich sans sauce and with bacon, coleslaw, jalapenos, and a salt packet, and I’ll wager I’ll be as happy as my husband was with his burger. We visited the Michigan Avenue outlet of Roy’s, where beverage options are limited to soft drinks and coffee, but the Ellsworth and Canton Center Road locations add shakes and floats as well as steak hoagies.
The Chick-Inn on Prospect at Holmes retains its speakerphones and carhops, but not its trays or frosty mugs. All the food comes wrapped to go, though you can eat at a couple of tables under its front awning if your car isn’t comfortable. The place could use a bit of sprucing up, too–signs need repainting, planters cleaning out–but a summertime excursion there is still an adventure. The place is owned by Kevin Lim, a Korean American, and the menu reflects that heritage in one item–the Bul Taco. Finely cut beef flavored bulgogi style and wrapped with tomato, onion, lettuce, and lots of Korean hot sauce (we ordered spicy) in a flour taco, it’s the perfect fusing of different cultures. The Paul Bunyan Burger, which combines two patties, secret sauce (psst, Thousand Island dressing), onions, and enough lettuce to make a side salad, won the giant messy burger contest for my husband’s heart over the Big Squeeze simply because of the onions and secret sauce. Lettuce also looms large on the Hammy Sammy, as do piles of hot ham, cheese, and a mild horseradish sauce. The sauce is so mild as to be indistinguishable, but this is another multi-napkin sandwich.
The chili on Chick-Inn’s foot-long dog, though meatier, spicier, and less tomatoey than Bill’s, is equally good, and the fried chicken dinner has a shatteringly crisp coating and juicy meat. Upgrade the standard fries to curly, though, and avoid the onion rings: overly coated orbs taken straight from the freezer. Do order the coleslaw, fresh and flecked with celery salt and minced green pepper, and definitely above standard. And do indulge in a beverage beyond the usual sodas. Melting soft-serve ice cream makes the Chick-Inn’s root beer float almost a root beer shake. The shakes and malts come in myriad flavors, some traditional, some not, but I will tell you that a chocolate peanut butter malt is much better than it sounds–an icy cold, creamy Reese’s Cup.
For a perfect summer evening, then, get yourself a 1955 Chevy Bel Air convertible and drive over to the Chick-Inn, with your date, for a Bul Taco, a Paul Bunyan Burger, and some coleslaw. Take your order to go and hurry over to Roy’s Squeeze Inn to pick up a Big Squeeze to determine which wins your giant-burger contest. Carry all the food over to Bill’s Drive-In and order, along with a chili dog or two, several frosty mugs of root beer and many, many napkins, and with your radio cranked to the oldies station, have a dinner from the past. Then, if you can still manage a bit more, take home a half gallon of Bill’s root beer and make yourself a root beer float to enjoy slowly on your porch as the sun goes down and the fireflies begin to flicker.
1292 E. Michigan Ave, Ypsilanti
Open February-October: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Hot dog, chips, and 16 oz. root beer, $3 (cash only)
Roy’s Squeeze Inn
1315 E. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti
Mon.-Sat, 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sandwiches and sides: $1.30-$5.15 (cash only)
501 Holmes, Ypsilanti
Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sandwiches and sides, $1.05-$4.99, dinners, $8.25, floats/shakes/malts, $1.65-$4.75