It is probably the smallest, most unprepossessing building icon in Duluth’s West End, but it’s enduring. In the shadow of the massive ore docks dividing West End and West Duluth, sits, on a wedge-shaped lot, a small drive-in restaurant known today as A&Dubs.
Of course, as the name indicates, it was once an A&W Root Beer franchise. That’s what it started out as shortly after World War II, remaining an A&W for I don’t know how long before it became independent. The location is the 3200 block of West Third Street.
In earlier days the drive-in had a profound influence on the comings and goings, and even dating and mating, of young people in that part of Duluth. The neighborhood is now called Lincoln Park, but will forever be known as West End to people who remember the seasonal—May through October—drive-in in its heyday as a social gathering center and eatery.
In those days—I’m talking about the 1950s—there were no inside booths or tables. All food and drink—wonderful A&W Root Beer in heavy, frosty mugs—were served on aluminum trays carried and attached to car windows by high school-age female carhops.
Indeed, that’s largely the way the restaurant operates today, although sometime during its long history an addition was attached to the front of the wood frame building and a few booths installed. Carhops still serve most of the orders out in the parking lot, though, the only drive-in left in Duluth with such service.
Relying on my own memory and not formal research, here is some of the history of the drive-in. It might have been the first Duluth drive-in with carhops, opening in the second half of the 1940s. My older brother, who graduated from Denfeld High School in 1950, worked there briefly when it first opened, probably around 1947 or ’48. In those days, the drive-in stayed open until at least midnight.
Patronage was mainly youth-oriented. My own experiences there began in the mid-1950s when I got my driver’s license. Hardly a summer’s evening went by that didn’t include a stop at A&W. It was the main summer gathering place for high school kids from the western Duluth neighborhoods.
Cars, many customized hot rods popular in that era, would encircle the small orange-and-black frame building at times three tiers deep. The carhops were mainly Denfeld girls, whose popularity was enhanced simply by being an A&W server. For them, getting a job there was like being selected to be a cheerleader. Automatic raised social status.
For boys, the conditions were ideal for meeting girls. They had to bring your root beer and hot dog or hamburger right to your car, redolent of perfumed air fresheners shaped like pine trees, their scents wafting out the open windows. Large angora dice festooned many a car mirror. Girls who didn’t work there would come as groups in cars, on the lookout for prospective boyfriends. Couples going steady or on dates would nuzzle on the bench front seats of cars, taking it all—and each other—in.
It also was a place for revving engines on souped-up cars, many with dual exhausts rigged with straight pipes and rumbling mufflers capable of producing deafening decibels. Sometimes drag races would be organized and carried out on nearby Grand Avenue or, better yet, Oneota Street, a wide thoroughfare not heavily traveled in the wee small hours.
It was a moment in time, accurately depicted in the movie American Graffiti. And while the era ended, that drive-in has endured for some 65 years, on the same tri-cornered lot with only a few building alterations, including a canopy and a much larger menu serving a more varied clientele—not mainly hormone-saturated teens.
A row of residences once stood along Third Street opposite A&Dubs. Those homes have been replaced by a mortuary, whose services are increasingly needed by the very people who, as teenagers, sipped A&W Root Beer nearby on many a warm summer night, a long, long time ago.
[Editor’s Note: Please share your memories of A&Dubs—and other Duluth drive-ins—by adding a comment below. And if you enjoyed Hef’s piece, you will most likely also appreciate Andrew Krueger’s Duluth News Tribune Attic has a nice archived story on A&Dubs, here.]