The scene at Carl's Drive-In on a weekday afternoon seems timeless, like maybe we're all acting out a Norman Rockwell painting. It's the little burger joint of the American imagination, which employs a couple fry cooks, some matronly waitresses and a young busboy. All the counter stools are taken, and most customers are enjoying a cheeseburger, fries and a mug of root beer. Someone should start reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Here we are in middle America, eating a burger and drinking a root beer on Route 66. Were it not for the Bluetooth ear set that one of the cooks is wearing, you'd swear it was 1949. In this context, he looks like a leak from Planet Android.
The big I.B.C. barrel lords over the itsy open-air kitchen like an idol, this rotund, majestic handmade cask about the size of a mini-fridge. You halfway expect the customers to bow to it before sitting down. And they probably should, because it's the barrel that holds the root beer that pours out cold and icy into jumbo mugs. They make the syrup in the back, and each day dump it into the top half of the water-cooled barrel. The bottom of the barrel holds air-cooled carbonated water. Each time a waitress pulls the handle on the side of the barrel, the cold syrup combines with the cold bubble water to create this nectar.
That wood barrel's been here since the mid-1950s; it was here when Carl Meyer bought the place and started cooking up these amazing burgers. Before it was a restaurant, the building held a gas station. Meyer and his partner, Frank Cunetto, have always served the root beer from this barrel.
They serve I.B.C.'s root beer recipe, but here's where it gets a little confusing. I.B.C. was a St. Louis brand that started producing its blend in 1919. That company went out of business, explains Frank Cunetto, who still owns Carl's (Meyer has retired to Florida), and when they did, they gave Carl's their root beer recipe. The drive-in still uses this original blend.
When the 7-Up company revived the I.B.C. brand in the 1980s, it dispatched a team of flavor analysts to Carl's to sample the root beer and try to replicate it for mass consumption. We don't know what they came up with, but we can taste some allspice, vanilla, sarsaparilla, licorice and maybe a little bit of coriander. Carl's must use the softest water in St. Louis, because their creation doesn't wash down the throat so much as it slides down. The I.B.C. you now buy at the supermarket is based on the recipe that Carl's serves. So Carl's "I.B.C." is different than the mass-marketed "I.B.C.," if that makes sense. We prefer the stuff they sell here, of course.
But who wouldn't? The little drive-in is virtually self-contained. Sidle up to the counter and order your double or triple cheeseburger, your fries and your root beer. The waitress takes two steps and tells the cook what you just told her (double-cheese with grilled onions, lettuce, pickles and ketchup), he places two patties on the grill, and they start sizzling. She tells the fry cook about the fries, then grabs a mug and pours the root beer that they made in back. By the time the beige head on the I.B.C. has settled, the sandwich and fries are sitting before you. The burger's the thin kind with crispy edges, which, doubled up, creates way more heft than you think it would. Chomp on the burger, take a big swig of silky root beer, followed by some fries dipped in ketchup, followed by a big-ass gulp of root beer, followed by a messy mouthful of burger. How about some root beer to go with that? Good thinking. Another fry? Yes, please. Now more burger. And again burger. Root beer, root beer, root beer. Fry fry fry. Root beer. Root beer. More burger. More root beer. More root beer. More root beer.