The drive-through at Sunset Crab Shack. Eve Hill-Agnus

From the Dining Critic's Notebook

The Lost Art of the Drive-Through

As Dallas restaurants have had to figure out a new way to serve their customers, many looked to an old-school format that feels very of the moment.

Even as Dallas begins to partially reopen today, over the past six weeks of confinement I’ve become fond of the drive-through. I’m not the only one. My fondness is shared by the woman stopped in her tracks on the sidewalk before the Sunset Crab Shack off Sunset and Llewellyn Avenues in Oak Cliff. She, like me, stands taking photos of the improvised drive-through on a recent Friday night: the parking lot turned into an obstacle course with one-way traffic.

Delineated by cones, three rows of two cars wait. Signs indicate DO NOT ENTER WRONG WAY so drivers can exit onto the street once a server, donning a neon-yellow construction vest and mask, has come out to deliver bags of food, fragrant with crab cakes and catfish, with shrimp and Cajun spice that will become a crab boil.

A few yards down the same street, the Charco Broiler parking lot is now a deserted wasteland between two brick walls. Spaces are numbered so you can park and text your spot for curbside delivery: another lot turned virtual drive-through.

And farther away in the Bishop Arts District at Emporium Pies, where lines on the Saturday before Easter stretched down several blocks and congested traffic, there’s now a “pie-thru.” It consists of an awning, a sign with a pie strapped to the roof of a car with a bow and a heart, and employees in floral shirts and aprons, face masks and gloves. A sandwich board points to a lane that essentially becomes the alleyway and reads, “no bicycles,” “no walk-ups”—only your car.

As I passed by on foot one recent afternoon, a driver rolled down his car window to gesture at the awning and ask, “Pizza?” “No—pie!” I yelled back, cheerfully. He nodded, content.

Emporium Pies’ Pie-Thru
Eve Hill-Agnus

In this time that has been assayed by so many as unprecedented, the drive-through feels like a vestige of an older, nostalgic time. Like war-time Victory Gardens, which have also made a resurgence along with the mentality of saving scraps, the drive-through has slipped back into our collective consciousness with a particular rightness, as though we were waiting to rediscover it. When restaurants are dark, their interiors closed off to us, menus or QR codes or Venmo handles taped to windows seem the only signs of life. Then employees and owners, like car hops, come to our car doors—the thresholds of our domain. The window is the only breach in our perfectly, hermetically sealed kingdoms.

Through weeks of confinement, the drive-through is a contact—one of the most immediate. They feed us. I will not forget the paper bags handed to me through my window by people in masks: a hand, a hand, and the parcel in between.

I’ve seen the lines stretched around alleyways and in and out of parking lots and corners. I’ve seen lanes marked off by cones or  separated by stanchions—gold ones, the ropes a fuzzy pink velour. I’ve waited under the fluttering pennants of the Las Almas Rotas drive-through alleyway in Expo Park, which was cobbled together in a few days with a repurposed doorbell and signs painted by its co-owners, all ingenuity and grit.

It’s as though we were all, actually, on a long road trip. In many ways we are: destination to be determined.

The drive-through was a thing I associated with the open air and open road, the neon of Las Vegas and the palm trees of L.A., where my mother lives. Who knew that a thing I associated with all this—and with freedom, though now it gives me a frisson to think of it—would be a defining emblem of a time of radical openness. But also a moment of radical fear. (Because who knows what our future is?)

It’s unclear when or whether these businesses will reopen those interiors (some today, but many not) or what they will look like if they do. How will we breach this world safely? How will they reconstruct what has been dismantled?

As we hold all of this in our minds, the drive-through continues to be both impersonal and not at all impersonal. They will not be with us forever. When we can all return to whatever new normal emerges, there will be less need for this form between nostalgia and high-tech, the drive-through and its virtual equivalent.

Until then, I will enjoy it. It arose, like so many things, in a time of duress. But unlike many—the fear among hospitality workers, the unemployment statistics, the harrowing awareness of their lack of safety nets—this one I will savor until it’s gone.

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