Pop's Drive In(n)
Review by Diana & VagBoy
And yet this area is full of the belchoid landmarks and scars of the late 20th century: strip malls, fast food joints, Walmarts, pickup trucks symbols of Americana "progress" and it doesn't look much different from any other out-of-the-way rural wanna-be nirvana in this country (or probably in the world). And despite the historical significance of the area, local and global economics only seem to favor big, highly-publicized tourism efforts like the local Colonial Williamsburg history themepark and its accompanying Busch Gardens. That's kind of sad.
Still, there are some traditions down here which are valued and patronized by the locals, and Pop's Drive Inn (sic) is one of them. It's on the corner of Route 17 (George Washington Memorial Highway for those who prefer names over numbers) and Goodwin Neck Road / Denbigh Boulevard (Rt. 630) and it looks like a blockhouse a couple of low buildings built out of cinderblocks then whitewashed. It used to be called "Pop's Foot Longs" and "Pop's Greasy Spoon," but they eventually chose to call it "Pop's Drive Inn," then corrected it to "Pop's Drive In." On the t-shirts, it's correct, on the ticket they give you with your order number on it, it's still misspelled. That's kind of funny and charming. They're also a local landmark, and directions to anywhere will reference Pop's, simply because its been here forever and everyone knows where and what it is.
They serve basically only hot dogs and hamburgers and the stuff you'd normally associate with that vintage 1950s teen meal. They started back then, and haven't been sold-out or taken-over by the big franchises and strip malls. In fact, it can be argued that the progress came to them the crossroads were built after they were there and so was the mall behind it. According to locals, it's always packed, but turnover is fast, so your meal can be ordered and eaten in about 10 minutes, most of that being the cooking and assembly time. The staff look somewhat alike, which probably means its a family business. In fact, it's also a family place. Sitting around us in the cheaply paneled room on the basement rec-room type of furniture and booths were families discussing things like what movies to see ("No, you can't see the Chuckie film, you're going to see Brother Bear!"), the game they'd attend to watch big sister "kick some ABC High School JV soccer butt," things they'd buy for others ("why do you think Nana would want a new toenail clipper?"), etc.
You see, Hollywood and the restaurant industry got it wrong. The formative post-war 1950s in America was actually not lived out in Arnold's, with its neon signs and clean booths, and attractively turned-out teens. It was played out in what looked like basement-decor greasy spoons with a burger that was honestly a full meal in itself (with your salad lettuce (not the horrible pre-shredded stuff!), tomato, pickle, onion, dressing actually between the meat patty and the bun) by kids who walked or hitched rides to a place like Pop's, who then brought dates, then their kids, in pickup trucks and SUVs.
Yessir, Pop's is a well-beloved institution, and their footlong hotdog comes with their own distinctive chili which is a pasty formula of finely chopped up and ground meat, spices, and not much else. It sits on the hotdog nicely, without sliming and gooping on everything, like fastfood and chain restaurant chili does. It's not apicy-hot either, but there is hot sauce on the table, along with ketchup in a red squeeze bottle (rather than in name-brand, patented-shaped glass, slow-pouring bottles). If you want mustard, you can ask for it when you pick up your food and they'll plonk a yellow squeeze bottle on your tray, though if you tell the you want it on the dog or burger, they'll put it on for you before they scoop in the chili.
You go up to the counter and tell the goth girl your order, and they charge $2.50 for the hotdog with or without chili, and the same for the burger with the salad on it, and pickles, etc. and with or without cheese. Things are simple here. You get the "Pop's Drive Inn" order number ticket, and you notice that it was once a 5-digit number, but the first three numbers have been blacked out, so only 2 digits show. We joked that it's because the counter-staff likely only counted to 99 ... but seriously ... They call your number (no announcement system here, so listen carefully) and they give you a paper bag with your food or a tray with your food. You carry, bus, clean up after yourself. The food is decent nothing remarkable or superlative except that this is what a hotdog and hamburger in America should be. This is the embodiment of the odd fantasy we Americanos have about the post-war period, but it's far more gritty and real than the polished image that franchised diners and theme restaurants present for popular consumption.
The ugly, squat concrete building looks tiny both inside and out, and it is. It's not a diner-palace (those scary places with lots of seats), just a place you can drive in and have a burger. There is no drive-thru window ... you do have to drive IN (not inn, of course). It's so no-nonsense that you feel like smacking yourself for ever believing that America could be anything else. Which, outside of this little corner in southern Virginia, America is, to its great shame and detriment. If you're in the area, come in just to experience the reality. And the hotdog and burgers are "nice" not gourmet, not nasty, unpretentious, unsophisticated, even kind of bland in a safe, cheerful way. They're just as they should be in our dreams.
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