A&W Root Beer Drive-In: A 1960s Bright Spot

Back in 1964, the distinctive orange A&W Drive-In opened at Lemona Avenue and Ventura Boulevard, where carhops served frosty mugs of root beer and Papa and Mama burgers.

A&W Drive In was a magical place in the mid-1960s. It was the very first drive-in restaurant that my parents took me to, near our family's apartment on Sepulveda Boulevard, just south of Venice Boulevard. The bright-orange color of the building and awning immediately resonated with me, as did the ice-cold, mini-sized mug of root beer the carhop would put on the silver tray on the window of my dad's Chevrolet Bel Air. 

Sherman Oaks briefly had its own "orange palace" in the form of an A&W Drive In, on the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Lemona Avenue, where the Monza car dealership is today.

When they were first building the Sherman Oaks A&W Drive In, my family had recently moved to nearby Encino, and I would love for my dad to just drive by the orange-brick building even before it was finished. I was so excited that an A&W Root Beer stand was coming to my neighborhood! A&W first opened for business in 1964 in Sherman Oaks and, after a few years, it became a White Castle Mini Burger stand, where miniature hamburgers were sold for about 19 cents. 

A&W Root Beer first started in 1919, when entrepreneur Roy Allen sold his original root beer recipe, which he purchased from a pharmacist in Lodi, CA. In 1922, Allen partnered with an employee of one of his root beer stands, Fred Wright, and they developed the A&W brand (using their surname initials) that spawned hundreds of drive-ins over the next 40 years and became America's first and largest chain of franchised restaurants.

There were many A&W Drive Ins around Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, and the company was doing a lot of advertising aimed at the burgeoning fast-food audience. (An ad from 1965 for A&W is featured here.) McDonald's, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen and Orange Julius were all expanding their franchise businesses in the mid-'60s so A&W was met with a lot of competition.

The Sherman Oaks location of A&W had a sign on the corner that looked exactly like the one depicted here, and often there would be a lot of teens gathered in front, like you see in the vintage photo here as well. My family went to the A&W Drive In quite a bit for the Papa Burger, Mama Burger and Baby Burger for me, until I was up to the Papa Burger level by age 6! The taste of that frosty cold A&W root beer in the thick glass mug brought by the carhop will always be an indelible childhood memory.

My dad, Jerry Lifson, loved his root beer. (He even favored those Reed's Root Beer hard candies, which were like Life Savers.) I was quite disappointed when after just a few years in business, the A&W Drive In closed. Sherman Oaks formerly had a large-scale drive-in on the corner of Sepulveda and Ventura boulevards called Hody's but that had closed in 1964, right before A&W appeared a few blocks to the east.

The opening of Flooky's Hot Dog stand in Sherman Oaks, complete with miniature golf course, became a head-on competitor for A&W as was nearby Wil Wright's ice cream parlor where in both cases you could get out of your car to eat in fun, decorative environments. As much fun as it was to eat in the car, it was awkward to reach out the window for your food on the tray, and with kids in the car, it could get messy.

By the late 1960s a lot of classic bright-orange A&W Drive Ins had begun to disappear from the landscape, but in 1971 the company introduced its first canned and bottled root beer that was sold in stores. That took the A&W brand to a whole new level, where it remains the nation's best-selling root beer. 

I have a classic '60s A&W root beer mug I bought on eBay, which I keep on my desk as a pen holder. I always remember going to the drive-in with my family when I see that orange and brown logo with the arrow poking though it. What a timeless treasure a cold mug of root beer still is; although I responsibly opt for bottled water nowadays.

Mattey's Mom November 22, 2011 at 04:16 PM
Thanks for your nostalgic article, Hal. You awoke similar happy childhood A+W memories (the one in Monterey Park where my family lived at the time), + salivating for it's root beer float that has never been matched. I seem to recall that the burgers were also made to order + didn't taste like typical fast-food. I wonder what places today's young people will recall with similar nostalgia in years to come?


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