Out To Lunch columnist Andrew Mark Veety continues his quest with photographer Jonathan Pollack for great Route 66 eats, inspired by Route 66 Road Trip. Every week this month, he's spotlighting a stop along the Manchester Road alignment.
I am not a native of St. Louis, but after moving here almost a decade ago, I used my interest in food to help introduce me to the city's neighborhoods and people. Of all the early places I discovered in my search, few stand out clearer in my memory than the first time I stood behind a row of hungry diners tucking into their burgers, waiting for a coveted seat at one of Carl's Drive In's two worn counters.
With that first visit, I instantly fell in love with the place – with watching owner Frank Cunetto methodically process orders (and how he never seems to end up in the weeds, no matter the size of the crowd flowing out the door and into the parking lot), the efficiency of the staff as they move customers in and out of the tight space (they are busy, not grumpy as some say, and for the record, manners always help) and with those delicious – almost candy-like – smashed hamburgers.
I was reflecting on the dozens of times I've eaten at Carl's since that first trip recently, and it occurred to me that the most remarkable thing to note about Carl's Drive In might not be the thin burgers – pressed into a griddle until their edges caramelize into a latticework of crust, each patty as seemingly unique as a snowflake – but the fact that the place never seems to change, even as we inevitably do.
As I mentioned before, I didn't grow in up St. Louis, so I don't have a formative childhood memory of visiting Carl's that others may have. However, I do relish taking my own son there on lazy Saturday afternoons for lunch. And on the rare occasions that the seating Gods smile upon us, I have the chance to park him in the same swivel seats where my now wife and I once sat for mid-week dinner after work when we were dating, or the time we first seriously talked about buying a home between swipes of still steaming fries into a shared paper cup of ketchup. Chances are, if you asked the folks sitting around you on your next visit, they'd each have their own story about how Carl's fits into the story arc of their life, just as I do, even if it is just a backdrop for those sweet memories.
My order at this legendary Route 66 burger joint? Well, it's changed little over the years. A large mug of root beer. French fries dusted with a generous helping of salt. A basket of two double burgers, please no cheese but add on lettuce, onions, pickles, mayo, mustard and ketchup. Like Carl's Drive In, I don't expect my order to ever change. And why would it? It's hands down one of my favorite meals, at one of my favorite places, in the great city of St. Louis. Maybe anywhere in America, for that matter.
Carl's Drive In, 9033 Manchester Road, Brentwood, 314.961.9652
Tired of reheating last night's dinner for lunch? Every Monday, food writer Andrew Mark Veety guides you to some of the best midday meals in the St. Louis region, with great places to bring clients or enjoy an outing with your co-workers. Missed one of his columns? Check them out here.
Catch Andrew on the air every Tuesday at 1:25pm on the Big 550 KTRS' Martin Kilcoyne Show, where he continues the conversation on his weekly lunch picks!
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