Inside The Kitchen: Don’s Drive In of Traverse City

All month long we’re going Inside The Kitchen at your favorite drive-in diners. And when it comes to Traverse City’s best, we went straight to Don’s Drive In.

“We don’t put anything on a burger except for what you ask for. If you don’t ask for it, don’t tell me you don’t want tomato, don’t tell me about tomato you don’t get tomato. Now because you put tomato in my head you might get it, see. That’s not good… I’ve been here too long.”

Owner Bob Wilson has been the face of the diner for 20 years. But before it was the pink classic we know today, it had another old time feel.

“It had an air hose like at a gas station and there was a bell in the back room. And when they drove over the air hose, the bell rang, and you looked out and if it looked like somebody wanted to be waited on, you went out and waited on ’em.”

And leading the kitchen for the last 10 years is Paul Coe, crafting everything from footlong coneys to old time burgers.

“Deluxe is mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato. Ketchup, mustard, pickle is everything. Our most popular is ‘everything deluxe,'” Paul explained. 

It starts with brisket ground beef from Louie’s Meats in Traverse City.

“Now what I’ll do is I’ll leave the press for a little bit, let it cook through and I’ll flip it over and we’ll leave it alone so all the juices stay right inside of it.” 

When it’s time to dress up the bun, I added bacon and cheddar cheese to my everything deluxe. But the stacking doesn’t stop at the burgers. Don’s BLT is a fan favorite, beginning with your choice of grain. Mine? A Detroit-made marble rye. 

A slab of cherry smoked bacon sits atop a mound of mayo, lettuce and tomato, then tucked in with the second slice. But what’s a burger or BLT without a carload of spuds?

“We have basket options, you can get it ala carte, we’ll work with you any way we can!” Paul smiled. 

For the ketchup dunker seeking spuds, there’s thick potato-ey steak fries. But for the perfect shake vessel, go curly. And that, my friends, leads us to Don’s Drive In real hand-dipped malts and milkshakes.

One and a half scoops of Prairie Farms specially made ice cream is mixed with a heaping ladle of chocolate syrup, then malt, and goes straight to the blender. Real fruit shakes options include strawberry, cherry and raspberry—but if you’re all about classic syrups go for vanilla, chocolate, strawberry or cherry.  

Whether you stop in for a late night shake or the whole works, Bob says it’s the combo of grub and experience that make Don’s a must-do.

“Go to the drive in, you get served the waitress comes out, takes your order, brings it out on the tray, you eat in the car, you mess the car up, we pick the tray up, we bring the tray in, you drive away with a mess. You’re happy, we’re happy.”

While Don’s Drive In is currently open for indoor seating, the drive in stalls will open for the season this Memorial Day weekend!