Friday, May 29, 2009

Modesto Graffiti

There's a tendency in the Bay Area to forget that the California Central Valley exists, and to many people it's like an annoying obstacle between home and the Sierra Nevada. I've always had an appreciation for the Valley, and I love driving all of the old mostly forgotten farm roads that crisscross the state. For some reason, I've spent more time exploring the backroads than I have poking around the towns of the Central Valley. Before this weekend, Modesto was just the place I would stop to grab a drink on the way to Yosemite, and I had never given it much more thought — it's just another one of those old Valley farm towns that's mostly mini-malls now, right?

Modesto does have its fair share of malls and a depressed old downtown, and actually consistently ranks as one of the worst places to live in the US, but any town that has a minor league baseball team called the Modesto Nuts clearly has more to it than meets the eye. One thing they certainly have is a snappy rhyming motto, "Water Wealth Contentment Health", which puts nearby Turlock's mildly punny "The Key to the Valley" to shame, and they have a beautiful old arch proclaiming the motto to the world.

The arch is nice, but in my world there's really one over-arching reason to visit Modesto: A&W. The very first A&W was in Lodi, California, not far to the north of Modesto and the place where John Fogerty seemed to get stuck at least twice, but Modesto has one of the few remaining A&W drive-ins, complete with carhops on roller skates.

Initial signs upon pulling into the parking lot are promising:

Elvis on the fender of an old truck below an old-fashioned A&W sign

A Packard bearing the old A&W logo and the license plate "MR ANW"

I was expecting something flashy in that 50s space age Cadillac tail-fin way, with big neon signs and sparkly naugahyde booths, but the Modesto A&W Drive-In is very unassuming, and arguably better: it's not trying to be campy or pseudo-retro, it's just a simple working drive-in that has managed to survive.

It's not entirely without flash, and I might describe it a bit differently on a Saturday night when the Marilyn Monroe look-alike shows up and they hold Elvis karaoke on the back of an old truck. Okay, so there's a little camp, but could you possibly resist if you ran a place like this?

A certain Modesto native named George Lucas also loved the A&W Drive-In it seems, and it served as his inspiration for American Graffiti, set in Modesto (although filmed elsewhere in Northern California). Naturally, the walls inside are covered with American Graffiti memorabilia to play up the connection.

Graffiti memoribilia

One of the best roller skating bear murals I've seen

And there are in fact carhops on roller skates

Hooray for good junk food

I had printed a coupon off of the A&W website for a free small root beer float with purchase. That one in front in the picture above, that's the small. You gotta love US portion sizes. It's not that we don't understand the concept of moderation, we choose to ignore it in favor of more soda and deep-fried cheese.

If you look carefully, you can just make out frozen edges in the root beer float

As we were sitting down to our amazing looking junk food meal, I heard someone on the other side of the room say "Well, we're not being heart-healthy...but, oh well" - my sentiments exactly. It's junk food: don't eat it every day, but enjoy yourself once in a while and don't expect to feel like frolicking in the sunshine afterward.

Not heart-healthy, but so tasty

Maggie summed it up perfectly in the middle of the meal when she said, "This is the real thing, dude." [Slight pause] "I'm getting a little queasy from the real thing." Queasy or no she had another onion ring.

Mr. Heart-Healthy across the room was then heard to say, "So once again, Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine," probably when he ganked a golden onion ring from his friend. Anyone who can recite a Belloq quote from Raiders of the Lost Ark verbatim deserves an onion ring.

This could buy me craploads of onion rings

After sitting for awhile in Moose Park along the Tuolumne River chomping on Altoids and attempting to digest the week's worth of calories and sodium we'd just consumed, we ventured out to see a bit more of the town. Modesto is proud of their George Lucas connection, and remarkably managed to retain this pride through Howard the Duck. In fact they even named a small corner park George Lucas Plaza complete with American Graffiti statue.

Is this Shirley and Opie in bronze?

Some might find it a bit crazy to drive a little over an hour away for junk food, but it was well worth it to me, plus we got to explore Modesto and we took a few beautiful backroads (Maze Rd. across the Valley, Corral Hollow Rd. into Livermore) on the way back to the Bay Area. If you're hankering for a burger and a root beer float at the Modesto A&W Drive-In, you can find it at 1404 G St. at the corner of of 14th St. Marilyn and Elvis show up on Saturday nights. George Lucas Plaza and the American Graffiti statue are at the corner of Downey Ave. and 17th St.


Doug said...

aww man, i was going to post a Howard the Duck reference but you snuck it in there already. damn you mr. murdock your assiduous knowledge is solely eclipsed by your wit.

An American in London said...

Man, I miss onion rings. Also, I thought the only reason Modesto was "famous" is because that's the town in which where Chandry Levy grew up. But now I see it has other claims to fame. Excellent.

AndysBro said...

Shall I pose a Central Valley challenge? Well, two, actually. I've long been curious as to the history of Jack Tone Road. You folks out there with internet time to burn may help here. Also, after reading (twice now) the history of the Big Oak Flat Road to Yosemite, I really want to try to follow it all the way from Stockton to Yosemite Valley. I know there's been a few rockslides there at the Yosemite end, but it has always been the Valley part that interested me. Milton, Eugene, Knight's Ferry - I'm coming for you. Now, who's going with me?
Oh yeah, I also appreciated the carhop upskirt.

Russell Limprecht said...

Here are more shots from 2009.

rich833 said...

For those who want to try a float in the uk, you can get A&W root beer from