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If there’s such a thing as a nostalgia factory, it would be Ruby’s. OC can be proud that the chain started here 30 years ago when owner Doug Cavanaugh bought an old bait shop on Balboa Pier. The restaurant empire now reaches from Hawaii to New Jersey.
Cavanaugh’s success didn’t come from just pitching burgers and fries to America: He offered the nation its own culture back, its innocence—everything romanticized from Norman Rockwell to American Graffiti. By way of his retro-themed diners, he did for the ’40s and ’50s what Walt Disney’s Main Street USA had done for turn-of-the-century America. But instead of a mouse, Cavanaugh had a muse. His mother, Ruby, became the chain’s symbol—a curvaceous pin-up worthy of a B-17.
What had remained noticeably absent from Cavanaugh’s nostalgia repertoire was a carhop-serviced drive-in.
Then in the past few months, Sonic—a chain that’s synonymous with drive-ins—opened three in OC in what seemed like a blink. Not to be outdone, Ruby’s finally did its own in Anaheim. A giddy press ate it up. Here was the next food trend after gourmet-food trucks! But it made me wonder: What’s become of sitting in a proper restaurant?
When I rolled into the parking lot of Ruby’s newest store, housed inside what was Anaheim’s historic Five Points Building, I longed to get the hell out of my car and into a booth. My three passengers felt the same way after the commute. I had a near-mutiny when I insisted we try the drive-in. “Hey, can we leave you here while we eat inside?” one friend asked, half-jokingly.
It’s easy to be cynical when reality kills the nostalgia. First, there was the tray. Designed to hook onto the level windows of pre-1970s vehicles, it hung askew on my late-model Honda. Then there was the less-than-scenic view of the drive-through Starbucks across the street—ironic, now that I think about it.
The only distraction we had were the LCD screens mounted on the menu marquee that cycled long-forgotten black-and-white movies. Since it output no sound, it quickly became just atmospheric. Watching our waitress glide in and out of view on her skates was more fun. She had the grace and ease of a figure skater.
It didn’t take long after our food was delivered before one of us lost a French fry. It remains undiscovered somewhere between the seat cushions. Shortly thereafter, I realized the folly of ordering the garlic fries: The fumes quickly filled the cabin and incited further protests from my passengers.
To save my fingers from touching the oily, pungent dollops of minced garlic, I pinched it between two fries. But when I reached around to sample onion rings offered from one of my backseat passengers, my thumb went into her ketchup. I took a bite of the thickly breaded ring and decided it wasn’t worth the effort or the extra buck to upgrade it from the standard fries, which were refillable upon request and come with every burger order.
The reed-thin, crispy-on-the-outside, creamy-inside sweet-potato fries, on the other hand, justified their markup. We ended up asking for a refill that we probably didn’t need and passed it around—which we probably shouldn’t have done. The crumbs went everywhere. I foresee my wet-dry vac having a sweet-potato-fry feast in the near future.
Ruby’s formidable burgers also contributed to the pit of filth that is now my automobile. If there’s one fatal design flaw to blame, it’s the chopped lettuce, which was all too ready to jettison itself from the sandwiches and made more of a mess than the barbecue sauce that slathered the hickory burger.
“Now I know why drive-ins are extinct,” groaned one of my victims . . . er, fellow diners.
But above all, our night out confined inside a vehicle was a lonely one. Of the dozen stalls, fewer than half were occupied in what was an otherwise-busy evening inside the restaurant.
The next day, I returned to Ruby’s and abandoned the gimmick to experience the gleaming chrome and red-pinstriped glory that is the clean-cut brand’s themed dining room. And what’s more, eating inside opened up menu possibilities unavailable at the drive-in. No longer was I limited to ordering burgers, sandwiches and shakes.
I feasted on dishes that would be impossible to consume in a car, such as the crumbly, cinnamon-y warmth of the apple pie à la mode and the majestic plate of grilled ground Kobe beef that spurted juice when I took a fork to it. Served with quail-egg-sized globes of fried potatoes and covered in a red-wine sauce and sliced portobello, the resplendent pinkness of this sublime chopped steak became the most convincing argument yet that drive-ins are overrated and should remain a thing of the past.
Ruby’s Diner, 1128 W. Lincoln Ave., Anaheim, (714) 635-7829; www.rubys.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$40.
This review appeared in print as "Carhopeless: Ruby’s new drive-in has left its mark . . . on my car’s upholstery."