If your visit was swell, ring the bell!
Like drive-in movies, drive-in fast food (as opposed to drive-thru fast food) is an aspect of American car culture that is swiftly disappearing. Rhode Island is lucky enough to have an excellent example in Greenville's A&W Root Beer Stand, a wonderfully anachronistic survivor from a time of whitewall tires, Wolfman Jack, and poodle skirts. While the teenagers running the place don't wear roller skates or cute little car hop outfits, they will still serve you in your car—just turn on your headlights for service.
Rhode Island is not home to the first drive-in restaurant. That distinction belongs to California, where an A&W stand opened in Sacramento around 1920, the first such eatery to offer curbside service. Rhode Island's Greenville location, built by hand by owner Joe Fanning and a hired carpenter, didn't open until 1960, by which time there were about 2,000 similar establishments sprinkled around the country.
With the coming of the drive-thru and its faster-than-thou imperative, drive-in restaurants declined in popularity. Today A&W has fewer than 400 franchise locations, and most of those aren't true drive-ins. In other states A&W Restaurants are often paired with a KFC or Long John Silver's in an attempt to maximize the profits for their parent company, Yum! Brands. There were once at least four other locations in Rhode Island: 625 Broad Street, Cumberland; 95 Budlong Road, Cranston; Willett Avenue, Riverside (Willett and Forbes Second Hand Store now); and Tiogue Avenue, Coventry (just past the curve where Walgreens is now). All disappeared long ago.
Running the Route 44 A&W was a welcome break for Joe Fanning and his wife Gladys who each had spent twenty years working in the Stillwater Worsted Mill. In 1985, after twenty-five years of serving soda and burgers they passed the business into the capable hands of Joel Feinberg of Cranston. He ran it until 1993 when he sold the business to some people who tried to run it under the name "Bill's Old Time Root Beer." Lacking A&W's brand recognition, the stand didn't last the season, and Feinberg ended up taking it back. In 1995 Feinberg sold the business again, this time to longtime customer Stephanie Nero Mosca. Stephanie and members of her family continue to keep the place alive today.
Foodwise, the big attraction at A&W is their signature root beer. Made fresh on the premises daily, it's smooth and sweet, not as fizzy as that sold in cans and bottles, and comes in sizes from fourteen ounces on up to a whole thirst-quenching gallon. If you're feeling especially la-di-da you can request your drink in a frosted mug—but be prepared to hand over your driver's license as a deposit. According to the A&W Restaurants website, the secret recipe of herbs, spices, barks, and berries has remained unchanged since 1919, when it was concocted by Roy Allen, the "A" in A&W. The "W" refers to his business partner, Frank Wright.
The menu offers such intriguing gustatory possibilities as triple-decker burgers, footlong cheese coney dogs, chili cheese fries, cheese curds (small nuggets of deep-fried white cheddar), and of course, root beer floats. There's also the Papa Burger, a sandwich that is apparently elevated above the common run of burgers by the addition of mysterious "Papa Sauce."
There are a few non-standard menu items, as well—and by non-standard we mean items that aren't included on A&W's national menu. These include such nods to local tastes as fish n' chips, a clam plate, and doughboys. You can get hot weiners here, too, made with a secret sauce that dates back to the Fanning's tenure behind the counter.
Truth be told, the fast food at A&W isn't really all that fast. In our experience the wait can be ten to fifteen minutes—longer if it's busy. But then it's not the kind of place you go if you're in a hurry. After all, the A&W Root Beer Stand is a survivor from a slower, simpler time. You go there for the food, for the nostalgia, and to escape, if only for a little while, from our complex, fast-paced modern world. So turn on your lights for service, roll the windows down, tune your radio to B101, and hum along to the oldies while you wait.
Speaking of oldies, Tuesday is Cruise Night, when lovers of chrome, vinyl upholstery, and fuzzy dice gather to show off their rides, socialize, and gobble Papa Burgers. Vehicles you'll see there run the gamut from Ford and Dodge sedans of the 1920s to a 1981 DeLorean. We even saw one guy proudly showing off his 1985 Camaro IROC-Z, but the majority of cars on display are more readily recognizable as classics.
On October 26, 2015, A&W ceased to be the only drive-in restaurant on Putnam Pike. That's the day Rhode Island's first Sonic opened just six-tenths of a mile to the east. The opening was preceded by at least two years of television advertising, building an appetite that could not be satisfied without a lengthy drive to another state. Rhode Islanders flocked to the restaurant that first day, and for weeks after, necessitating a police detail to control the line of cars backed up into the street. But things have calmed down since, and (as of 2019) A&W's market share seems no worse for the competition.
"Two women who recall the early days at A&W are sisters Linda Conlon and Donna Estrella. They worked as car-hops for the Fannings in 1962. A friend told the Pawtucket women they might be able to get jobs there, and they applied and were hired. Looking back they laugh about the experience of going to wait on cars in 'The Jungle,' as one area of the parking lot was jokingly called. The area along one side of the lot abutting a miniature golf course in those days, The Jungle was where the young single guys in hot cars tended to congregate. 'They were the Fonzie kind of characters,' says Linda, hastening to add that the customers there were exuberant, but not usually offensive. 'They did stand up on the back of their cars and holler for us to come to their car instead of the others,' recalls Linda, adding 'but they were okay.'"—Your Smithfield Magazine, "Memories flow at A&W Root Beer reunion," by Laurence J. Sasso, Jr., October 2006.
"Thirty-five years ago A&W was my hang-out spot. Lots of my friends and I would make our weekend plans there and play mini-golf next door... After filling up at A&W and playing golf we would go to Scuncio Chevrolet and dream and make plans for which car we would buy when we grew up. All that's left now is A&W and a whole lot of great memories. I didn't mention all the time we spent bowling next door and running out in between sets to grab food from A&W and sprinting back to finish our next set!"—Michael Hoard on Facebook, April 16, 2010.
"I owned the A&W. Bought it in 1985 from the Fannings. My best story is as follows: We used to have four or five car hops out in the yard. One of the car hops was Missy Cedor (her two brothers and sister also worked for me). One of the front room people was my nephew Jon Kaplan. Long story short, they used to flirt with each other from the car hop window. Well, they are now getting ready to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary. They have two beautiful daughters who would be car hops now if I still owned it!!"—Joel Feinberg on Facebook, April 16, 2010.
Cost: depends upon your appetite
Time required: allow 30 to 45 minutes
Hours: The A&W Root Beer Stand is open daily from the second Saturday in March through Thanksgiving; 11am-9pm during the spring and fall, 11am-11pm during the summer. Cruise Nights take place on Tuesdays, April through September.
- Best Blast from the Past, Rhode Island Monthly's Best of Rhode Island, 2002.