Two Tennessee Drive-Ins

I decided that after we collected the girlchild, we’d take a long way home. We were in no particular hurry. US-411 runs parallel to I-75 for most of the way home, so we drove a little south to the town of Maryville, one of Knoxville’s suburbs, and stopped at a classic drive-in for a snack.

Amburn’s Hum-Dinger Drive-In opened in 1957. They have menus and trays at each parking place, and a carhop joins you to take your order. I asked around and nobody else wanted anything, since the lunch that I’d picked out – see the next chapter – sounded more appealing. So I asked for a burger, onion rings, and a creamsicle malt. What happened next was slightly amazing.

The fellow pointed out that a combo would be cheaper. I asked whether I could get a combo with onion rings, and he said that I could not, as it comes with fries. I asked whether those are hand-cut fries or frozen. They were, naturally, of course, frozen fries. I said no thanks, I would prefer onion rings.

Dude rang me up for a combo anyway and gave me fries.

So the burger was pretty good. I had just a little bit of it since we had another meal a short drive away, but the kids enjoyed the fries. And the malt was just fine. But heavens, if y’all don’t want to make onion rings, take ‘em off the menu!

Anyway, a few hours later, after lunch, we were southbound on 411, meeting lots and lots and lots of bikers coming north and making the turnoff for US-129. This was, after all, a bright and glorious April Saturday, not too hot, and absolutely perfect weather for riding the Dragon, something that I would dearly love to do, although not, perhaps, in my cute li’l four-cylinder Mazda. I suspect it doesn’t quite have the pickup needed. If any of y’all have a ’68 Mustang Cobra Jet that you’d like to lend me one weekend, though, please get in touch*.

One of the businesses that has benefited from biker travel to the Dragon is the A&W drive-in just outside Madisonville. Wow. There aren’t very many of these left. This one opened in 1964 and while most of the stand-alone A&Ws, and especially the drive-ins, were closed down or merged with other Yum! brands concepts in double-menu restaurants, this one has survived quite nicely.

I asked how they’ve managed to stay in business for fifty years, and learned that this is the most profitable A&W outside of California. Lots of drive-ins host classic car shows or biker nights, but with the continuous popularity of the Dragon, especially over the last fifteen years or so, there is a constant stream of motorcyclists stopping by for a root beer float. Marie likes A&W’s root beer a lot more than I do. She says that it has the strong flavor of vanilla that she enjoys most. To me, it just tastes flat. Still, gorgeous building, and all due credit to the people at Yum! for keeping this place open and so beautifully clean when it’s not really in line with their double-banked building strategy.

There are lots of interesting stops along 411, businesses both closed and still open. I didn’t want to completely exhaust my family’s patience so we only stopped a few times, but if you enjoy old architecture and vintage buildings and signage, you could do a lot worse than a drive from Maryville to Ocoee to Cleveland. Give yourself four or more hours so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to stop and shoot. Happy travels!

Amburn's Hum-Dinger Drive-In on Urbanspoon

A & W All-American Food on Urbanspoon

*Wood grain interior. Automatic transmission. White, preferably. 8-track deck’ll be fine because our buddy Dave has a stack of ‘em I can borrow.


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4 thoughts on “Two Tennessee Drive-Ins

  1. 411 is our favorite route to the Smokies from the NW suburbs of Atlanta. The southern part of the 411 route from Catersville thru Chatsworth to Ocoee is also very interesting both for restaurants, structures, and scenery. The old 411 route south of Chatsworth to Oakman goes thru a very pretty mountain valley with farms and barns right by the highway. Northbound, it is easily accessed by turning right at the red light just north of Oakman then turning left right after the railroad tracks.

    In Chatsworth alone there are a few restaurants worth checking out, Edna’s, Bear Creek, Biscuit Box, and Little Rome. The Creme Hut in a restored and repurposed Texaco Gas Station looks like it would be worth making a stop at too.

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