June means it is drive-in time in Big Sky Country. The next three months are not only when most visitors come to Montana. It is the time when Montanans get out and travel to festivals, rodeos, and their own family vacations. In my years of traveling and documenting historic places in Montana, I have not forgotten the drive-in restaurant and its role in the roadside landscape of the state. I paid some attention to this property type during the original work on the state historic preservation plan in 1984-1985. Most drive-ins (and here I am focusing on independent operators not fast food chains) dated between 1950 and 1970 and the best examples were located along stretches of early federal highways. When I returned in 2012-2016 to revisit the state’s historic landscape, scholarship told me to be on the look for drive-ins of all sorts and shapes. Some already had shuttered–like Zandy’s in Great Falls–but others were still vibrant, and great places for road food. The following are some of my favorites:
The Dizzy Diner in Terry, on the historic Yellowstone Trail, is a drive-thru and has a few places inside–with traffic on old U.S. 10 being diverted to the interstate, it survives as a local town restaurant–true for several other places in Montana.
The Main Drive-In in Conrad is located on the historic federal hi way (U.S. 91) and still draws in customers despite competition from chains and the diversion of most traffic to Interstate Highway I-15.
At Scobey, Shu Mei’s Kitchen converted an earlier drive-in into a family restaurant on Montana Highway 13 in northeast Montana.
It’s not surprising that Lewistown, in the middle of the state faraway from the interstate system, has several still operating roadside establishments from the mid-20th century, such as the Wagon Wheel Drive-In (above–and being a southerner I loved the sign that bragged “we have MT Dew”) and the Dash Inn (below), which opened in 1952.
The next three may well be my favorites of all of the different drive-ins. Ford’s Drive-In in Great Falls is so eye-catching with its Art Deco-influenced design and neon. Burgerville in Polson is just, well, eye-catching with all of its signs and towers–how could you ever miss it along U.S. Highway 93?
Then there is Matt’s Drive-In in Butte. This place was awarded the prestigious 2016 America’s Classic Award from the James Beard Foundation. The foundation’s press release stated: “The whitewashed cottage with sky-blue trim opened in 1930 as a drive-in. The staff still deliver some meals curbside to this day, and they remain cheerful curators of community, working the soda-fountain counter in a room lined with midcentury-style wood paneling. The food does the roadside genre proud.” Yes, indeed. And you haven’t been to Montana if you have not tried a nut burger from Matt’s. Always add a shake and onion rings here too.