Hot Rod Thursdays, car hops and homemade onion rings—what sound like memories of an idyllic bygone era are in full swing at Spring Lake's Minnetonka Drive-In, a bustling throw-back where Minnetonka Twin burgers, baskets of fries and rib dinners complete with homemade barbecue sauce are ordered car-side and enjoyed in the front seat.
Founded when drive-ins populated the landscape, the restaurant has managed to survive nearly a half-century in business—something Dave Bennyhoff, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Deb, considers “astounding”—to become one of Minnesota's few remaining drive-ins (and an independent one, at that). Forget satisfying your appetite at a place with central air and little sign of the sun: fending off the heat of the fleeting summer months takes little more than the shade of the drive-in's overhang and a root beer float with the windows rolled down.
What began as a family-owned A&W Root Beer stand in 1961—long before the root beer baron sold its product on store shelves and moved its restaurants indoors—has become a permanent fixture March through October. Just don't confuse it with Sonic: the Minnetonka Drive-In is the epitome of a local family business. Founded by Bennyhoff's parents, Gordon and Jeanette, it's where, as one of eight children, he landed his first job at the age of 9, with the glamorous task of cleaning and sanitizing gallon jugs to hold root beer. He worked up to washing mugs and frying up orders and after returning from college, running the drive-in. The family legacy remains to this day; Bennyhoff and his wife, sister, daughter and 12-year-old son all log hours behind the counter.
The drive-in seems almost frozen in time: Vintage Pepsi and A&W signs hang on the wall inside, while a neon sign in the window announces it as “Home of the Slow Strokes Auto Club.” On Hot Rod Thursdays patrons can admire one another's classic cars (though Bennyhoff says every day is an event at the drive-in). It's like a strange hold-over from another era, and even the prices seem like an anachronism: a California Supreme—a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, cheese and bacon—costs less than $4, and root beer is free for kids under 5. Not even the menu has changed since the first carhops scurried through the lot 48 years ago. Bennyhoff's father developed the recipes they use to this day, and much of the food is still prepared from scratch, including the onion rings, which Bennyhoff considers, along with the drive-in's fried chicken, the best in the world.