The 50 Best Drive-In Restaurants in the U.S.

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The prime of American drive-ins might be behind us, but there are still plenty of these nostalgic roadside eateries available. Whether you're looking for a quick bite or a more specialty meal, drive-ins offer one benefit that most other restaurants simply can't—fries and floats from the comfort of your own vehicle.

1. ORIGINAL SONIC DRIVE-IN // STILLWATER, OKLAHOMA

sign at the original sonic drive-in
Yelp/Kenneth H.

Sonic might now be America’s largest chain of drive-ins, but it got its start as a single restaurant with a slogan of "Service with the Speed of Sound." The original Stillwater location opened in 1959 and was fully renovated in 2015—it now has TVs to watch sports and an outdoor fire feature, but the the original sign is still on display and the carhops will still roller-skate out to your vehicle to deliver cherry limeades, chili cheese coneys, and tots.

2. MUGS UP ROOT BEER // INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI

Located in the Kansas City metropolitan area, Mugs Up has been serving homemade root beer in old-fashioned frosted mugs since 1956. And with their trademark loose-meat Zip Burgers still only costing $2.15, and a side of onion rings only setting you back $1.75, Mugs Up feels like a preserved slice of mid-century Americana.

3. RED RABBIT DRIVE-IN // DUNCANNON, PENNSYLVANIA

The '50s-style Red Rabbit Drive-In hasn't changed much since Sam and Maggie Snyder opened on Mother’s Day 1964: You’ll still find fried chicken dinners, ice cream, pizzas, made-to-order milkshakes (in regular and thick!), and fries sprinkled in “Bunny Dust” on the menu, and it’s still in the family—Sam and Maggie retired in 1988 and handed the baton to their daughter, Cindy, and her husband. Stop by and sink your teeth into the drive-in’s signature Bunny Burger, a beef patty with smoked bacon, melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, and a special mayonnaise-based sauce on "a special seeded roll." There’s no indoor seating, but hungry diners only have to put on their hazards and a server will come out to their car; they either eat in their vehicles or at picnic tables. Red Rabbit is closed in December and January; plan accordingly!

4. THE VARSITY // ATLANTA, GEORGIA

the varisty drive-in
Ken Lund, Flickr // CC by SA 2.0

If you’re looking for a chili dog in the ATL, the call of Varsity’s signature "What’ll ya have?" is too hard to resist. When it opened in 1928, Varsity was a small hot dog stand located near Georgia Tech University, perfect for college kids to pop in for a cheap bite. Today, it’s a sprawling restaurant that can accommodate 800 people inside and 600 cars, and the carhops still don paper caps while delivering Frosted Orange milkshakes and slaw dogs to the masses.

5. MATT'S PLACE DRIVE-IN // BUTTE, MONTANA

Matt’s Place, opened by Matt Korn in 1930, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. There are plenty of delicious treats to try here, from hand-churned ice cream to a BBQ pork sandwich, but the real stand-out is the Nut Burger. Cooks use an ice cream scoop to toss the ground beef on the grill; it’s flattened into a patty, cooked, and placed on a bun, where it’s topped with Miracle Whip mixed with salty chopped peanuts. There are seats inside this 2016 winner of the James Beard American Classics Award, but car-hop service is also available.

6. CAMERON'S LOBSTER HOUSE // BRUNSWICK, MAINE

When in Maine, stop by Cameron’s Lobster House in Brunswick. This drive-in seafood spot serves fresh-caught crab and lobster with every meal, including breakfast (crabmeat omelet, anyone?). Whatever time you stop by, come hungry: Menu options include a seafood combo appetizer (half a pint of scallops, shrimp, and crabs), lobster stew accompanied by oyster crackers and a grilled biscuit, and a "must try" lobster BLT that comes with chips and a pickle (if you upgrade the sandwich to a basket for an additional $3, you can choose an additional two sides). Park and leave your lights on for car-side service (there are also options to eat inside the restaurant or at outdoor picnic tables).

7. ARDY & ED'S DRIVE IN // OSHKOSH, WISCONSIN

ardy and ed's drive-in
Ardy & Ed's

Ardy & Ed's Drive In has been a summer staple in Oshkosh since 1948. Originally called the Southside A & W Drive In, it served root beer, hot dogs, and chips, before changing names—and owners—and becoming Ardy & Ed's Drive In. Even if you don’t own a vintage convertible, you can still swing by and order a draft root beer and drink it by the shores of Lake Winnebago.

8. DRIVE IN // TAYLORS FALLS, MINNESOTA

Located in the tiny town of Taylors Falls, the Drive-In turns cars into a time machine that transports passengers back to the 1950s. Poodle skirt-clad carhops bring orders of crinkle-cut fries, homemade root beer, and bison—yes, bison—burgers.

9. FENCE DRIVE-IN // MILTON, PENNSYLVANIA

Enjoy the Susquehanna River view with your burger while dining at Fence Drive-In Restaurant, a roadside drive-in located on Pennsylvania’s Route 405. It’s famous for its fish sandwich, but owner Matt Rabb also serves fresh-cut French fries; hand-breaded shrimp, scallops, and chicken; and homemade tartar sauce, red sauce, and cabbage salad, using the same recipes that founders Bob and Elva Reitz used when they first opened the Fence in 1951.

10. WAGNER'S DRIVE-IN RESTAURANT // BROOKLYN PARK, MINNESOTA

wagner's drive in
Yelp/Kohleen L.

Twin Cities residents with classic cars can show off their rides at the family-operated Wagner’s Drive-In Restaurant, which hosts a Monday Night Cruise Night where a group of motorheads called "The Wag-Niters" meet to enjoy fast-food favorites, admire other vehicles, and enjoy one another’s company. (Just don’t get any ketchup on their seats.)

11. SUMBURGER RESTAURANT // CHILLICOTHE, OHIO

Opened in 1953, Sumburger Drive-in in Chillicothe, Ohio was originally housed in a trailer and fittingly named "Trailer Drive-in." The following year, the restaurant moved to its present-day location, expanded, and changed its name to Logan View Drive-in. But since customers referred to their burgers as "some burger," they changed their name to its present moniker in 1974. Enjoy bourbon-fried chicken, fresh strawberry pie, and burgers smothered in a special "sumburger sauce" delivered carside, or drive across town to Sumburger’s newly opened sit-down restaurant for an indoor meal.

12. THE CHATTERBOX // AUGUSTA, NEW JERSEY

Settle in outside the Chatterbox or in its cozy, circular dining room for good food, classic cars and motorcycles, and great conversation. Expanding on the traditional drive-in’s all-fast-food menu, The Chatterbox offers wraps and seafood, too, although you can’t go wrong with a hefty half-pound Angus burger.

13. SUPERDAWG DRIVE-IN // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

superdawg drive in
Jondoeforty1, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A Chicago institution for almost 70 years, Superdawg brings only the best in all-beef hot dogs and classic, kitschy culture. Don’t miss the gift shop for t-shirts, key rings, and wedding cake toppers, all emblazoned with the drive-in’s lovable dancing hot dog mascots. "From the bottom of our pure beef hearts," the slogan goes, "thanks for stopping."

14. SKYWAY DRIVE-IN // AKRON, OHIO

Love fast food but hate feeling guilty about where your food comes from? The Skyway is the place for you. All of the drive-in’s burgers and sandwiches are made with fresh, locally sourced food. Dig in to their signature double-decker Sky Hi burger with cheese, pickles, and their special house Ski Hi sauce.

15. ED WALKER'S DRIVE-IN // FORT SMITH, ARKANSAS

The oversized neon sign outside of Ed Walker's may advertise their French dipped sandwiches, but according to reviews, the real showstopper is the Giant Cheeseburger—5 pounds of beef on a homemade sourdough bun, which comes with a pie server for dishing up slices of burger. Rumor has it that when Ed's first opened in 1943, they served a side of moonshine to those in the know. Though that’s likely no longer the case today, customers can still legally get a beer delivered to their cars.

16. BAR-B-Q KING DRIVE-IN // CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA

There will be no multitasking here; the fare at Bar-B-Q King is sit-down-and-focus food that requires both hands and a lot of napkins. Guy Fieri of the Food Network is partial to the eatery’s barbecue fried chicken. Add some onion rings and a cherry lemon SunDrop and you’ll be good to go.

17. SYCAMORE DRIVE-IN // BETHEL, CONNECTICUT

sycamore drive in
Janine Lamontagne

Once a week during the summer, the sleepy little town of Bethel becomes a hotspot of rock and roll. Sunday cruise nights at the Sycamore drive-in draw chromed-up classic cars, leather jackets, and laughter from all over the local area. Be sure not to miss their root beer float with homemade root beer.

18. STEWART'S // VARIOUS LOCATIONS

You might know the name for their root beer—invented by Ohio teacher Frank Stewart in the 1920s—but Stewart's has evolved to include about a dozen drive-ins scattered across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia (they also have sit-down restaurants). Customers rave about the chili dogs, crinkle-cut fries, vast menu, friendly service, and of course, the root beer floats.

19. DICK'S DRIVE-IN RESTAURANTS // SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

One of the few Northwest drive-throughs left, Dick's is a nostalgic throwback in a city experiencing rapid change; several of the five Seattle locations date back to the 1950s or early '60s. Although the simple burgers (with locally made buns) don’t offer any customization, they're a great deal and a beloved late-night eat. Fans especially swear by the cheeseburgers.

20. FRISCO'S CARHOPS // CITY OF INDUSTRY, CALIFORNIA

frisco's drive in
Yelp/Brenda A.

Frisco’s carhops serve more than just burgers. The Carhops—who are decked out in pink skirts and roller skates—will deliver your food with a side of song and dance. The house specialty is the parmesan sourdough bread, which they swap for the buns on their burgers, but the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in case you need a pancake pick-me-up in the morning.

21. AMMONS DRIVE-INN RESTAURANT AND DAIRY BAR // WAYNESVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA

If you want an old-timey meal at an old-timey price, you can't go wrong at Ammons, where a hamburger still costs less than $2. The menu has more than just burgers, though. You can also pick up some fried seafood, barbecue pork, a whole cheesecake, or one of their handmade shakes. The nearby Asheville Press recommends the cobbler, which comes in various flavors that rotate throughout the week.

22. MAC'S DRIVE-IN // WATERLOO, NEW YORK

Mac’s Drive-In has been operating every summer since 1961, when it was one of the first fast-food joints in its area and the first to offer curb service. Locals and tourists visiting the Finger Lakes have eagerly awaited the hamburger stand’s opening day ever since. In 2015, they served up 1500 pounds of French fries—all cut fresh on-site—on the first day of the season alone. Don’t leave without a frosty mug of Richardson’s beer, which they pour from a mini-keg that’s been a fixture on the front counter since the restaurant first opened.

23. CHUCK-A-BURGER // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Chuck-A-Burger's '50s-style burger and shake experience doesn't end with the food: On the last Saturday of each month through September, the drive-in hosts a classic car show featuring customs and hot rods.

24. DARI-ETTE DRIVE IN // ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA

dariette drive-in
Jerry Huddleston, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Dari-ette Drive In goes beyond the normal burger-and-fries fare of most diners, serving up Italian specialties, too. Operating since 1951, they claim to serve the best meatballs in the Twin Cities and were featured on the first season of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. If you can’t give up the idea of having a burger at a drive-in, you can order the Pizza Burger, a patty melt made with Italian seasoning and homemade red sauce.

25. THE BEACON DRIVE-IN // SPARTANBURG, SOUTH CAROLINA

It may not be great for up-close conversing—the place goes through three tons of onions a week—but the seven-decade-old Beacon is worth the drive for its Chili-Cheese-A-Plenty, a burger drowning in chili and French-fried potatoes.

26. DOG HOUSE DRIVE IN // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

In general, walking in the footsteps of Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman is a terrible idea. Hitting up Dog House along Route 66, as he does several times in the AMC series, is one of the exceptions. Dog House is known for its spicy chili dogs, but patrons also say Dog House makes the best Frito Pie around.

27. KING TUT DRIVE-IN // BECKLEY, WEST VIRGINIA

You can get your burger fix here, but King Tut's menu is more than beef: Stone-baked pizza is served daily, and all of their breads are made in-house. Opening daily (save for Wednesdays) at 11 a.m., workers get there early to start making pies from scratch.

28. PEPPERMINT TWIST // DELANO, MINNESOTA

Gourmet burgers attract the adults, but it's the adjoining teddy bear-themed playground that keeps the kids occupied at Peppermint Twist, a favorite of Delano locals. The location was painted hot pink in the 1980s to make sure they stood out against a nearby Hardee's. It worked, and the Twist is a regular fixture of Minnesota "best of" lists.

29. KELLER'S DRIVE-IN // DALLAS, TEXAS

Keller's is one of the few places in America you can drive up, order a beer, and sip it in your car. If suds aren't your thing, you'll still get a buzz from their famous No. 5 burger—two patties on a poppy-seed bun.

30. BILL'S HOT DOG STAND // YPSILANTI, MICHIGAN

Famous for their chili dogs, Bill's also offers up a little bit of performance art. When patrons pull up to the bright yellow shop, car hops take their order instead of a speaker system. The servers then relay the menu items to workers inside via hand signal.

31. BOOMER'S DRIVE-IN // BELLINGHAM, WASHINGTON

Homemade milkshakes are practically a prerequisite for any self-respecting drive-in, but Boomer's goes a step further by sourcing from a local dairy farm. The custom is to order one of their regular or monthly special shakes and then use it as a dip for their trademark waffle fries.

32. CORRAL DRIVE-IN // GUYMON, OKLAHOMA

The menu at this drive-in movie theater goes beyond popcorn. The Corral is home to a full-kitchen pizzeria and grill serving up specialties like calzones and Philly cheesesteaks, but customers who don’t have the appetite for a full meal can find more typical movie theater concessions like hot dogs, nachos, and chili cheese fries as well.

33. GEORGE THE CHILI KING // DES MOINES, IOWA

george the chili king signage
Yelp/David D.

George the Chili King opened in the 1950s when drive-ins were a popular option for hungry motorists. A lot has changed since then, but their carhop service and all-American menu remains the same. The restaurant serves drive-in classics like burgers and fries, but (obviously) it's the chili that made it a local institution.

34. BOBO'S DRIVE IN // TOPEKA, KANSAS

Located on 10th Avenue in Topeka, Kansas, Bobo’s Drive-In is hard to miss. Hungry travelers can recognize it from the neon tubing poking out from the roof or the vintage 7-Up sign overlooking the road. Inside and in the parking lot, Bobo’s serves specialties like onion rings, apple pie, and burgers topped with their signature Spanish sauce.

35. MURDO DRIVE-IN // MURDO, SOUTH DAKOTA

Murdo Drive-In has been serving comforting roadside fare to locals for over 30 years. Every May, the restaurant reopens and fires up the grill for customers dining inside, on the front patio, or in their cars. But note that they close for the season on August 31, so you'll have to go elsewhere for burgers and soft-serve during the fall and winter months.

36. FROSTOP DRIVE-IN // VARIOUS LOCATIONS

You can't miss Frostop—it’s the drive-in with the giant rotating mug of creamy root beer perched on top of the building (or on a pole). The first Frostop opened in Springfield, Ohio, in 1926, serving classic soda fountain fare like burgers, shakes, and, of course, frosty mugs of root beer. Frostop had 350 locations across the U.S. at its peak in the early 1960s, but now they're down to just a handful in Louisiana, Illinois, Idaho, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Utah. You'd do well to find one, whether for the nostalgia factor or for the cold-brewed root beer made from the original recipe.

37. RAINBOW DRIVE-IN // HONOLULU, HAWAII

Rainbow Drive in
Eugene Peretz, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

When Rainbow Drive-In first opened in 1961, the menu included $.25 hamburgers and $1 steak lunches. Prices have inflated a bit since then, but the owners still pride themselves in serving classic Hawaiian lunch plates—with plenty of mahi mahi and spam options— at affordable prices.

38. MAC'S DRIVE-IN // MCCOOK, NEBRASKA

For homemade pies and tarts, thick shakes, and perfectly crispy fries, look no further than Mac's in McCook, Nebraska. Customers can order from their cars or opt for an inside booth, where they place their orders using phones at each table. And if that’s not kitschy enough for you, you can always order the Jell-O salad for just $1.60.

39. MOON LIGHT DRIVE IN // TITUSVILLE, FLORIDA

The Moon Light Drive In is appropriately named—it’s just a five-minute drive from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. When the owners opened the now-iconic establishment in 1964, they had the Apollo missions in mind. Locals and NASA tourists alike rave about the perfectly cooked burgers and creamy milkshakes, which one Yelper declares "the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my entire life."

40. DOUMAR'S DRIVE-IN // NORFOLK, VIRGINIA

Doumar's Drive-In.
iStock

After introducing the first waffle cone at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, Abe Doumar turned his sweet invention into a business. Doumar's still uses Abe’s original waffle iron to make their ice cream cones 100 years later. Ice cream isn’t the only item you’ll find on the menu of this Virginia drive-in. They also serve burgers, hot dogs, and barbecue.

41. KING LOUIE'S DRIVE-IN // WOOD RIVER, ILLINOIS

This St. Louis-area burger stand is enough of a local fixture that when the owners of 18 years made the recent decision to start closing the restaurant each Sunday, they posted their personal cell phone number for patrons to call them with questions and comments. While you're there, make sure to try the homemade root beer, which you can buy by the gallon, and if you dare, try the King of the Jungle Challenge—if you can finish a 2-pound burger, loaded potato planks, and a 32-ounce soda in under 30 minutes, you’ll win a t-shirt and eternal glory.

42. RODEO DRIVE-IN // BREMETON, WASHINGTON

Built in 1949, the Rodeo Drive-In now claims to be largest drive-in movie theater north of California (they can hold about 1000 cars) as well as one of the oldest in the country. But they’re also known for having a great food selection, including Philly cheesesteaks, "mega-pizzas" with all the toppings, fish and chips, and distinctive pizza dogs. The use of a pager system means you can watch the movie in your car (they have a selection of latest releases, not just old favorites!) while you wait for your food, instead of standing in line.

43. WAYNE'S DRIVE INN // LAWTON, OKLAHOMA

Locals love the juicy burgers, steak fingers, ice cream, onion rings, and endless drink combinations at Wayne's (they've got 12 homemade flavors for mixing; the cherry limeade is a particular specialty). The servings run large, and so does the nostalgia—the business has been open since 1950.

44. AVI'S SCREAMERS // WICKENBURG, ARIZONA

avi's screamers drive in
Yelp/Rob P.

People drive from out of town just for their green chili burgers and chili cheese fries at Screamers, and leave raving about the taste and low prices. More than just a novelty stop, the hand-pressed burgers won’t disappoint.

45. JERRY'S CURB SERVICE // BEAVER, PENNSYLVANIA

Jerry's Curb Service has been flipping burgers and delivering fries and shakes to your car window since 1947. As legend has it, the Steak Salad was invented at Jerry's in the 1960s when an unnamed patron ordered a steak sandwich, hold the bun, with fries and salad dressing. According to Jerry’s, "Not one to disappoint a customer, [Jerry's wife] Donna Reed placed the order. She noticed the man cut up the steak, mixed in the fries and poured the salad dressing on top. Curious about this rather odd concoction, Donna decided to try it for herself, but with one small change. Donna placed her sliced steak, fries and salad dressing atop a fresh bed of lettuce." Today you can order Donna’s version as well as the man’s original order.

46. DON'S DRIVE-IN // TRAVERSE CITY, MICHIGAN

With its neon sign, red banquettes, and summertime carhop service, Don's Drive-In is a delightful 1950s throwback. The menu is chock full of American diner classics—burgers and dogs (cooked "the way you like 'em," chicken fingers, patty melts, onion rings, and hand-dipped milkshakes and malts—and has barely changed since Don’s opened its doors in 1958 (although we’re guessing the veggie burger is new).

47. THE PARKETTE DRIVE-IN // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

Originally opened by Joe Smiley in 1951, the Parkette underwent a renovation and restoration in 2008. New owners Jeff and Randy Kaplan may have given the kitchen and dining room a makeover, but the car port call boxes, carhops, and landmark 40-foot-tall sign remain. Order a Poor Boy—a double-decker burger with all the fixings invented by Smiley—a Hot Brown Burger, or some Kentucky fried chicken for a gut-busting meal. The Parkette also hosts regular "cruise ins," or classic car showcases, in its parking lot.

48. THE DONUT HOLE // LA PUENTE, CALIFORNIA

The donut hole
Yelp/Indah K.

If you’re the kind of person who is afraid of driving through tunnels, the Donut Hole might be the place that helps you get over the phobia. Drive into short tunnel that’s capped by two 26-foot fiberglass doughnuts. The landmark, founded in 1968, is open 24 hours and boasts flavors ranging from the classic cake doughnut to ones covered in Fruity Pebbles.

49. FALAFEL'S DRIVE-IN // SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA

In 1966, Anton and Zahie Nijmeh moved to San Jose and opened a drive-in, where they sold typical American fare like burgers, hot dogs, and onion rings. But that was just the beginning. The couple slowly started to introduce falafel and other middle eastern foods into the mix. Where else do gyros, kabobs, tabbouleh, and delicious "yogurt drink" share menu space with fries and shakes?

50. CHARLIE'S DRIVE-IN // HORTONVILLE, WISCONSIN

When it comes to Charlie's Drive-In, Elvis has never left the building: For less than three bucks, the King of Rock can serve you a classic burger. Each Tuesday, the restaurant, which has been operating for 1965, hosts a classic car night where anybody driving a classic Chevy or Caddy will get a free mug of root beer with a sandwich.

Written by Erika Berlin, Stacy Conradt, Michele Debczak, Kirstin Fawcett, Shaunacy Ferro, Kate Horowitz, Bess Lovejoy, Erin McCarthy, Lucas Reilly, Jake Rossen, and Abbey Stone.

Wrap Yourself in the Sweet Smell of Bacon (or Coffee or Pine) With These Scented T-Shirts

adogslifephoto/iStock via Getty Images
adogslifephoto/iStock via Getty Images

At one point or another, you’ve probably used perfume, cologne, body spray, or another product meant to make you smell like a flower, food, or something else. But what if you could cut out the middleman and just purchase scented clothing?

Candy Couture California’s (CCC) answer to that is “You can!” The lifestyle brand offers a collection of graphic T-shirts featuring scents like bacon, coffee, pine tree, strawberry, and motor oil. If you have more traditional olfactory predilections, there are several options for you, too, including rose, lavender, and lemongrass. There’s even a signature Candy Couture California scent, which is an intoxicating blend of coconut, strawberry, and vanilla.

candy couture california bacon shirt
Candy Couture California

According to the website, CCC founder Sara Kissing came up with the idea in 2011 while working in the e-commerce fashion industry, and her personal experience with aromatherapy led her to investigate developing clothing that harnessed some of those same benefits. The T-shirts are created with scent-infused gel, which “gives off a delicate, mild smell—just enough to boost your mood.”

So you don’t have to worry about your bacon shirt making the whole office smell like a breakfast sandwich, but you yourself will definitely be able to enjoy its subtle, meaty aroma whenever you wear it. The shirts are also designed to match their scents—the chocolate shirt, for example, features chocolatey baked goods, while the coffee shirt displays steaming mugs of coffee.

candy couture california chocolate shirt
Candy Couture California

The fragrances don’t last forever, but they’ll stay strong through 15 to 20 washes before they start to fade. CCC recommends using unscented detergent so as not to conflict with the shirt’s aroma, and you can further prolong its life if you’re willing to wash it by hand.

Prices start at $79, and you can shop the full collection here.

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

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iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

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