The man who helped popularize the concept of eating in your car didn’t think much of the folks who actually did it. “People with cars are so lazy they don’t want to get out of them to eat,” famously quipped Jesse G. Kirby, founder of the Pig Stand, a Dallas-based chain of drive-in restaurants that came of age in the 1920s, around the same time as the American automobile.
Kirby may have been a savvy businessman, but he didn’t understand human nature very well. It was not laziness (or not just laziness) that kept people parked in their Tin Lizzies during the dinner hour. It was vanity, pride, insecurity, neediness, the same motivations that make us post photos of our cakes, vacations and new haircuts (you know, back when we could get one) on the socials here in the 21st century. In a fickle consumer culture, we’re always looking for ways to signal our prosperity and good taste — and have them validated in return.
Over the past century, restaurateurs and fast-food executives have relentlessly followed the evolutions of American society and car culture, willing to accommodate our needs at every turn, no matter how trivial. They built the paved stages, known as drive-ins, for greasers to showcase their hot rods in the 1950s. They created the roadside drive-throughs for motorists merrily chugging along President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s network of interstate highways in the 1960s. They developed mutli-lane drive-throughs to accommodate the growing number of working parents with kids to feed in the 1980s. They opened late-night windows to satisfy the kush crowd, their cravings acute after an evening of hotboxing in the car.
But who among the high-paid brains of the corporate boardroom could have foreseen the coronavirus pandemic and what it might mean for the American drive-through, which has remained a vital source of revenue for fast-food and fast-casual chains alike? As governments began shutting down all sectors of society, including restaurants, Steve and April Antonelli were quick to grasp the importance of the drive-through window at Spelunker’s Burgers and Frozen Custard: It would serve as the lifeblood of their family business in Front Royal, just a short drive from the north entrance of Shenandoah National Park.
The automobile has represented many things to Americans over the years — freedom, rebellion, luxury, the poster child of global warming. But in the age of coronavirus, the car has assumed a new identity: our safe space from the world outside. Few things can make us feel as protected as the colorful armor of our own vehicle, even if it doesn’t necessarily provide the six feet of cushion demanded of social distancing.
Steve and April are husband and wife as well as the co-founders and longtime operators of Spelunker’s, a business owned by Steve’s father, Bill Antonelli. When the Antonellis were scouting locations for what would become Spelunker’s, they came across a former Long John Silver’s in the Shenandoah Valley. “When we found this place, it was like, ‘Wow, this is too good to be true,’” Steve recalls. “’But what do we do with the drive-through?’”
Their answer would come from the family’s own history. Father used to take son to the old Frozen Dairy Bar in Falls Church, a drive-in shop where the lines were legendary, as customers waited in the humid Virginia heat for a scoop or two of the thick, cool, housemade custard. Steve and April decided they would make their own custard, a nod to the Frozen Dairy Bar, and sell it from the drive-through window at Spelunker’s. Problem solved.
With their 100-seat dining room closed, the drive-through window has become the primary portal through which Steve and April keep the food flowing. Typically, the window has its own pared-down menu, a necessary concession to prevent cars from clogging up the parking lot as customers wait on their meals, each made to order. But these days, if you call ahead, you can order anything off the full menu and pick it up via the drive-through. Steve and April have also placed some employees outside, with tablets in hand, to take orders from those waiting in cars.
The pivot has helped contain the bloodshed. Steve estimates that sales have decreased by 20 percent. “Our business is down, but it’s not the horror stories that I hear from restaurant friends, just because we have the drive-through,” Steve says. “Without that, we’d be 80 percent down.”
I drove more than 80 miles to get my first taste of Spelunker’s. At a brief stopover at Red Truck Bakery in Marshall, I picked up a bag of chef Brian Noyes’s sweet, sticky, stupid-good granola and a sour cream coffee cake before Noyes closed down the shop on Easter Sunday to ride out the rest of the pandemic. While there, I also placed a phone order with Spelunker’s for a double cavern burger with cheese, a chili cheese dog, fresh-cut fries, onion rings and chocolate chip custard, the flavor of the day. Did I mention that I was alone and hungry?
As I rolled into the parking lot at Spelunker’s, I was met by a young man wearing gloves, but no mask. He said he didn’t feel the mask was necessary. (All together now: kids!) I told him I had ordered ahead, and he swiped my credit card on his tablet and pointed me in the direction of the drive-through window. If I’ve had a better hamburger pulled from a bag, I can’t remember when. Spelunker’s has its own custom blend, a mix of chuck and brisket, which is ground daily in-house. Twice. The five-ounce patties are griddled a beat or two past medium, their exteriors blackened with crisped-up deposits of rendered fat. The burger drips enough juice to almost — almost — soak through its paper wrapper. To sink your teeth into this masterpiece is to remember that nothing compares to fresh cuts of beef, pushed through a meat grinder and cooked in their own sizzling fat.
I was equally impressed with the Vienna all-beef dogs tucked into a buttery New England-style roll and topped with a housemade chili whose spice is offset with a pinch of sweetness, which comes from an unlikely source: pureed carrots. If I were honest, I really didn’t need the custard, but I ate two whole scoops of it anyway, its richness occasionally, and abruptly, interrupted by thick, hard pieces of chocolate. I only stopped eating it because it was gone.
Would I make the trip again to Spelunker’s without a pandemic and a handy drive-through to make it all seem safe? In a heartbeat.
Spelunker's Burgers and Frozen Custard
116 South St., Front Royal, 540-631-0300; spelunkerscustard.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Prices: 99 cents to $8.69 for all items on the menu.