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April 4, 2006

Dixie Highway A&W: last of a dying breed

From a simple root beer stand that opened in 1919 in Lodi, Calif., A&W Root Beer and A&W Restaurants spread across the nation throughout the 20th century. A&W (the name derives from the last names of founder Roy Allen and his eventual partner, Frank Wright) opened what some think may have been the first “drive-in” restaurant, with “tray-boys” delivering curbside service, in Sacramento, Calif.By 1960, the chain had more than 2,000 restaurants in operation, and it went global a few years later with stores in Guam and the Philippines. It was also about that time that the A&W Restaurant & Ice Creamery opened on Dixie Highway in Valley Station, not far south of the Gene Snyder. The A&W is still there, serving up root beer floats, coney dogs and the venerable “Papa Bear” triple cheeseburger.Betty Gassaway, one of the current store managers, confirmed that the restaurant has been in that location since the 1960s. She’s worked there on and off herself since 1962, when she was 15.The A&W in Valley Station appears to be the last of the A&W-only restaurants left in the Louisville Metro area. While the restaurant hasn’t offered curbside service for some time now, it does still have the long awning for cars to park under, and Gassaway and general manager Shawn Carter said they plan to bring the service back this summer.According to www.awrestaurants.com, there are several other A&W’s in the area, but they’re all of the newer variety, which matches an A&W with either a KFC, a Long John Silver’s or a Taco Bell. (A&W bought Long John Silver’s in 1999, and in turn was purchased by Tricon Global Restaurants Inc., now known as Yum! Brands Inc., which also owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.)I grew up going to A&W Restaurants, so the chance to return was an exercise in nostalgia, and the décor of the restaurant did little to break the spell, with old-style green and white tables and chairs. Unfortunately, the large A&W sign that used to be visible from a distance was shattered in a recent storm. Carter said a new one is on the way.I parked under the awning, but it quickly became clear I’d have to go in to get something to eat. I found that the A&W now also offers fish and shrimp baskets and fried cheese curds, but I was there for a big, sloppy cheeseburger and fries and a frosty mug of root beer float-goodness.I would’ve gotten the “Papa Bear,” but it’s not listed on the menu, and no one mentioned that it was still being served until after I’d eaten. (A&W used to have the Papa, Mama and Baby Bear burgers, in descending order of size.) Unfortunately, non-disclosure of that sort was a bit of a theme at the old A&W. I called ahead to ask if the restaurant accepted debit cards and was told they did, except for Fifth-Third Bank cards. What I wasn’t told is that there’s a 99-cent surcharge, which might have encouraged me to stop and pick up some cash.I ordered a root beer float with my deluxe double bacon cheeseburger combo (an extra 50 cents for a medium or 85 cents for a large), but I wasn’t given the option of soft serve or hand dipped ice cream in the float — I was just given soft serve, which was a disappointment, to say the least. (I was later told the restaurant does have hand-dipped ice cream in addition to the numerous flavors of soft serve it has on tap, but you have to specifically ask for it at the counter.)Beyond those quibbles, however, the A&W in Valley Station is a fine place to enjoy a good burger with all the trimmings, and everything is made fresh to order. I’m a bit of a connoisseur when it comes to the cheeseburger, and I’d say A&W’s is good — not great, but pretty darn good. The chili and coney dogs look like a treat as well, and I’m almost tempted to head back out for a shot at the curds. And soft serve or hand-dipped, it doesn’t matter, the root beer float is still a grand thing, indeed.Perhaps this summer I’ll roll up my pants, throw on some penny loafers or Chuck Taylors and borrow the old man’s 1960-something Caddy and head back out to see if I can get some 1960s-era drive-in service to go with my delicious hand-dipped ice cream root beer float. And pay cash.A&W Restaurant & Ice Creamery is located at 14126 Dixie Highway. Hours are 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The restaurant accepts debit cards (99-cent charge) and is wheelchair accessible. Call 937-3722 for more info.BY CHRISTOPHER HALLleo@leoweekly.com