Val’s Drive In: A chance to revisit the past

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They don’t roller skate to the car any more, but the service still comes with a smile and, on the weekends, with a poodle skirt as well.

Val’s Drive In on Sabattus Street is a “Happy Day’s” place, according to Gail Lawrence, whose dad, Val Gregoire, bought the drive-in hamburger restaurant in 1959. Today, Gail’s son, Chris Lawrence, owns the business and the tradition lives on.

Nikki Choiunard of Auburn has worked at Val’s for seven summers. “My dad’s favorite movie is American Grafitti,” she said, so despite her lack of personal experience with muscle cars of the 1950s, she has some idea of what those times were like. “I recognize the Camaros because my dad had one.”

“People came here when they were children, and now they bring their children. They always want to know why I don’t wear roller skates, but I do wear a poodle skirt on the weekend. It’s a fun place. I serve (the food) with a smile and they always come back.”

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Lawrence recalled a couple who originally came to the drive-in to celebrate their engagement. “They came in just the other day with their grandchildren and have been coming every week for the past 35 or 40 years!”

Customers are not the only thing that has stayed the same over the years. The menu and much of the equipment remains as it was in 1959.

Once the Vulcan grill’s knob broke. Lawrence said that even though the new knob cost $500 to $600 to replace and a whole new grill would have only been $800, they decided to go with the knob since the new grill would have changed the flavor of the burgers. “My dad said that it was just part of the history.”

The cash register is the original one from National Cash Register and only goes up to $5 in sales, not a problem when burgers were 10 and 20 cents. “Now we just ring in $5 over and over,” Lawrence said.

The red wheel full of orders still spins in the window. “When Bob Marley came once,” Lawrence proudly noted, “he said it was just like old times, hoping the red wheel brought his order!”

“We have the same specials we did back then,” Lawrence said, “hamburger, french fries and a root beer. In the ’80s we sold 6,000 25-cent hot dogs in one day, more than Fenway!” As for that famous frosted mug of root beer that sloshes its way to the car window, Lawrence said, “We still make our own root beer from scratch; it’s the same thing.”

Nostalgia is big at Val’s. Lawrence said seeing the cars drive in and the car hops serve the customers is like watching a movie. “We have the ’50s music playing, and you might hear a radio station with someone sounding like Wolfman Jack. Someone puts a hula hoop on, the bubbles blow, the poodle skirts swing. It’s a happy place!”

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