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Gino's Pizza in SLO brings back carhop drive-in service 

When I was a little girl, I broke my wrist diving down the stairs into a bean bag. Face first. This was my brilliant master plan to break my glasses because I didn't want to wear them. Having a cast on my arm made for a real drag of a summer, especially when my siblings and friends spent most of their days in the public pool to manage the 100-degree Davis weather. But my mom bought me a set of watercolor paints and allowed me to sit on the side of the pool, so I could drape my legs in the water. I couldn't go all the way in for an underwater tea party, but I felt somewhat included and less like a hospital patient.

click to enlarge CARHOP SERVICE Gino's SLO location is now serving drive-in, carhop service. Guests can expect the classic aluminum window trays of yesteryear in this innovative solution to safe, COVID-era dining. - PHOTO BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • Photo By Beth Giuffre
  • CARHOP SERVICE Gino's SLO location is now serving drive-in, carhop service. Guests can expect the classic aluminum window trays of yesteryear in this innovative solution to safe, COVID-era dining.

Going to Gino's Pizza carhop service felt a bit like that broken-wrist summer—a little interim dining experience before the governor approved our county's request for late Phase 2, announced May 20, which includes dine-in, alongside some very strict guidelines.

I learned about the carhop as the word spread like greased lightning that we could have a dining experience outside our home. Lickety split, news of Gino's carhop hit the classic car clubs and legit cruiser crowd faster than a comb through a greaser's hair.

On any given night, Gino's parking lot will be host to a mix of anything from a 1957 Chevy Bel Air containing baby boomer grandparents sharing meat lasagna and chicken piccata, to an entire family on a blanket, picnicking on the bed of their extended-cab truck with two extra large Hawaiian pizzas and Dr. Peppers.

I wasn't out to eat with the rest of the community, but at least I felt like I was out in the open air, participating in something recognizably human. Not quite dine-in yet, but just about.

Our toes were in the pool, and we were diggin' it. My kids and I ordered root beer floats with cherries on top (brand new on the menu, as suggested by some cats in classic cars), regular crust pizza, and Caesar salad, out of our min-van hot rod (joking), and everything was copacetic.

click to enlarge COOL CAT Meet Nico, one of owner Consuelo Diaz's Spanish-born sons, who works at Gino's SLO. - PHOTO BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • Photo By Beth Giuffre
  • COOL CAT Meet Nico, one of owner Consuelo Diaz's Spanish-born sons, who works at Gino's SLO.

A young guy walking in and picking up his to-go order saw our little metal carhop trays all hooked up and full of food. We were kickin' back in our ride, fresh air moving through the windows, listening to some really good oldies '50s music: "Little Deuce Coupe" by the Beach Boys and "Pipeline" by Dick Dale blared out of the outdoor speakers.

I could see the lightbulb go off in his head. "That's real cool," the guy said to us. I just knew he had the same realization: We can do that?! Aren't we all tired of bad news in Squaresville?

It just so happens that Consuelo Diaz, the proprietor of Gino's Pizza, in all her American-spirited brilliance, found a way for her customers to safely go out to dinner during shelter-at-home.

The idea came after the new shelter-at-home orders forced her restaurant to close for two weeks. She said she'd seen a construction guy eating a sandwich in his car out in the parking lot, and it reminded her of a photo she had of her restaurant's past life. In the '50s and '60s, the Gino's SLO location was a drive-in carhop restaurant called Little Chef. Why not re-introduce carhop service, she thought.

click to enlarge GOOD OL' DAYS Gino's is located in the former Little Chef Restaurant, a drive-up broiled steak restaurant in the 1950s. Carhops, conceptualized in the '20s and popularized in the '50s, were largely replaced by drive-thru service in the '60s. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GINO'S PIZZA SLO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Gino's Pizza Slo
  • GOOD OL' DAYS Gino's is located in the former Little Chef Restaurant, a drive-up broiled steak restaurant in the 1950s. Carhops, conceptualized in the '20s and popularized in the '50s, were largely replaced by drive-thru service in the '60s.

Before the drive-thru was even invented, the drive-in concept was popularized in Texas in the '20s by a chain of eateries called the Pig Stand, according to history.com. Customers would pull into the parking lots to be greeted by carhops. The carhop was a combo waiter/busser who served food on trays clipped onto the car's window. In 1948, the first drive-thru was opened, and you may have heard of that joint: McDonald's. Drive-in became more than novelty in the '50s and '60s, when car-bound restaurants drew in those looking for quick service and efficiency. Little Chef was one of those places.

"They had people with roller skates ... this was a drive-in and that was a drive-thru," Diaz said. Under some serious coverage (mask, shield, gloves—not her favorite outfit), Diaz showed me the photo of Little Chef back in the day. The building hadn't changed much. She had added some planter boxes for color and a modern sign.

click to enlarge MADE IN THE SHADE At Gino's Pizza SLO, you can choose your toppings or go for one of the specialties, like this Hawaiian pizza. The hand tossed pizzas are available in thin or thick crust. - PHOTO BY BETH GIUFFRE
  • Photo By Beth Giuffre
  • MADE IN THE SHADE At Gino's Pizza SLO, you can choose your toppings or go for one of the specialties, like this Hawaiian pizza. The hand tossed pizzas are available in thin or thick crust.

Apparently Little Chef was known for broiled steaks, and the mountain-lined parking lot along Monterey Street used to be the starting point for the cars to cruise downtown.

Diaz said she wasn't expecting people to be so excited about the throwback idea. She said she's been getting "super cute couples" wondering how the carhop system works and "the cruisers" who were born for this.

She said the first thing she did after getting the carhop idea was call the county Health Department. Drive-in food? They hadn't been asked that question in about six decades. Mel's Diner in L.A. was doing it. Mel's had been a former drive-in as well. And it did fit all the social-distancing guidelines. The spirit of the American Dream is alive and well in SLO.

She ordered the trays from a supplier on the East Coast. When they arrived, her sons, who both work at the restaurant, assured her they go inside the car. No, no, outside! She insisted, laughing.

Knowing her business might not make it in a long-term shutdown, Diaz said it was "heartbreaking." But with this hybrid/vintage drive-in model, Diaz was able to retain all 17 employees, including her two sons: ages 16 and 18. And she was able to get a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

"I had a great person in the bank," she said. "When they approved, and before we even got the money, I said, 'OK guys, we're back in business.' We are so blessed."

Her neighbor 1865 Craft House & Kitchen, she said, sadly closed when the shelter-in-place began and hasn't opened since. She worries about fellow restaurants.

"Our carhop service provides the opportunity to continue to serve our community in a fun, family-friendly environment that allows our guests a safe, out-of-home experience," Diaz said. "What's old is new again."

As we were leaving, the speakers played a song I thought was apropos: "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees—not '50s or '60s music, but entirely appropriate. Δ

Flavor writer Beth Giuffre is definitely new again. Send roller skates and hot tips to bgiuffre@newtimesslo.com.

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