The arrival of warm weather in Columbia, Missouri, means the return of nostalgic fare from a place where time has all but stood still for the past six decades. Roll down your window and go back in time at Mugs Up Drive-In, as carhops bounce between cars and the kitchen, bearing silver trays loaded with piles of smashed burgers, cheese fries and frosted mugs of root beer floats. A pastel pink-and-ivory 1956 Dodge LaFemme looks more at home here than a modern SUV, and credit cards are foreign currency – only cash and checks are accepted. Owner Brandon Kewley, whose grandparents Ray and Edna Kewley first opened the drive-in burger and float joint in 1955, says that’s what makes Mugs Up a beloved fixture in town.
Throughout its 63 seasons, which run from mid-March through October, the only sizable change has been the location, just a stone’s throw away from the original. Mugs Up originally sat on the edge of Business Loop 70, where JJ’s Diner operates today. Kewley says heavy traffic on the Business Loop caused a couple of close calls with carhops, so his grandfather relocated the building to the south side of the lot. Although more secluded, the move didn’t deter customers, who have flocked to Mugs Up for over half a century. “I was in a pinch and had to carhop one day – and I hadn’t carhopped in over a decade,” Kewley says. “I had customers that I used to wait on when I was a teenager, and they remembered me. That was amazing.”
The restaurant is the last remaining in a chain of 60 original drive-ins that operated under the same name, although a few others remain with much changed menus and concepts; the Kewleys only ever owned the Columbia outpost. The family has retained ownership, passing the business down through three generations as they’ve done with their closely guarded recipes. “I’ve been making the root beer since I was 12,” Kewley says. “That’s the first thing they trusted me to learn. I didn’t start making the chili until I was in my 20s, because that was my dad’s thing.”
Root beer arrives in a frosted glass, tapped fresh from the canister where it’s made just feet away. Fan favorites include the chili, heaped onto a hot dog and topped with onions and cheese. Other Mugs Up originals include the Zip Burger; named for its speedy preparation, the Zip is piled high with loose meat – more Sloppy Joe than burger patty. Its fame comes from both its flavor and preparation: The ground beef is boiled – not grilled – in batches, then drained of grease and mixed with a secret blend of spices. The standard Zip comes with mustard, pickles and onion, but can be upgraded to a Cheese Zip, (pictured above) slathered in cheese sauce. (Photo by Keith Borgmeyer)
Mugs Up Drive-In, 603 Orange St., Columbia, Missouri,