photos by Louis David
Newcomers do a double take when they pass by. Old timers get nostalgic. And just about everyone, young or old, is compelled to pull into the Sycamore parking lot sooner or later, if only to travel ever so briefly back in time.
The Sycamore Drive-In Restaurant on 282 Greenwood Avenue, intersecting Routes 53 and 302, opened its doors in Bethel, Connecticut back in 1948, with its black and white checkered floors and red vinyl-bottomed chairs, serving up steak burgers and root beer brewed on site. Waitresses greeted patrons inside or curbside. Guys arrived in Cadillacs with their dates….
Sixty-four years later, not much has changed. At least not at the Sycamore. The floors are still checkered, the seats still red, and the jukebox still plays “Rock Around the Clock.” Dagwood Burgers are as popular today as they were decades ago and the top-secret root beer recipe has yet to be revealed. To this day, if you blink your lights when you pull up, you’ll get car hop service. (Think Arnold’s in “Happy Days”, sans the roller skates).
Then there are the cruise nights, which came on the scene over 30 years ago, but whose popularity has never waned. Although any visit to the Sycamore provides a blast from the past, summer cruise nights do it most dramatically. Every Saturday night from May through September, the parking lot is packed with up to 80 Mustangs, Oldsmobiles and other classic cars from the 30s through the 70s.
“Girlfriends and wives, especially, can be seen dancing to the DJ music,” said Mike Flanagan, a long-time Sycamore customer, classic car aficionado and member of the “Loose Nuts” classic car club, in an interview at the restaurant.
The Sycamore sponsors a car club as well, The Sycamore Knights, a group from Ridgefield. The cruise night crowd includes Bethel and Danbury high school grads from the 50s and 60s, teens who come to see what things were like for kids way back when, and families who come for a shake and to view the scene as a sort of pop culture museum. They aren’t the only ones who see it that way. Bethel’s Sycamore has been featured on the History Channel and the Food Network, as well as in People Magazine, The New York Times and a variety of Connecticut publications.
“Laverne and Shirley have been here” said Patrick Austin, co-owner of the restaurant along with sister Kathleen and their parents, Gene and Christine, in an interview at the restaurant. Other famous guests have included Bethel’s own Meg Ryan, New York’s former Mayor Ed Koch, and “Willie Nelson stops here every summer,” Patrick revealed. Before the Austins owned the restaurant, several movie scenes were filmed in it as well
Gene and Christine had frequented Sycamore as students of Danbury High, from which Gene graduated in 1957 and Christine in 1960. Kids came later, went to school in Bethel, and the entire family soon developed a passion for The Sycamore, and for classic cars (Gene’s white 1965 Ford Pick Up is a restaurant icon these days and many of his past classics are featured around the restaurant as well). Those are just some of the reasons that, when the Sycamore came up for sale a dozen years ago, the family felt compelled to take that leap. Patrick and his father left the construction business, Christine retired from teaching and Kathleen left another waitressing job to do the honors at what was now her own place.
“It was just so thick with memories for everyone” Patrick recalled. “How could we not buy it?”
Famous guests have included Bethel’s own Meg Ryan, New York’s former Mayor Ed Koch, and “Willie Nelson stops here every summer.”
After World War II, America had experienced a population boom which contributed to increased demand for consumer goods and a period of great economic growth. People had more money; they bought cars and a variety of new domestic appliances, making way for more leisure time. Television replaced radio and movie stars and musicians became more accessible through mass media. The world of professional sports expanded and rhythm and blues music became popular, providing a segue to rock and roll.
The war was over, entertainment more important than ever, and pop culture exploded, including the infamous car culture of the times. The Sycamore brought all these elements to Bethel, and has kept them there ever since. Little has changed on the menu since 1948, although some things have been added. ‘’We’ve snuck in some healthy fare,” said Patrick, “like a cranberry walnut chicken salad. We know people want some options like that now and then when their kids come in for the sweet potato fries and ice cream sundaes.”
The Sycamore has been featured on the History Channel and the Food Network, as well as in People Magazine, The New York Times and a variety of Connecticut publications.
Amazingly, this little restaurant seats 75 and it’s often packed seven days a week. The walls don pictures of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, along with clippings about local military men through the years. Gene served in the Koran War.
“Half of our car night proceeds go to DAWS and Korean War vets,” Kathleen was quick to tell us. So it isn’t only about fun. But fun it is, nevertheless. And although it isn’t official, this is certainly considered an historic landmark by its loyal patrons. It’s a piece of living history, with many of the players still around.
One waitress, Linda Lerchey, came over to tell us about she and her husband Dave, the first white member of the Del-Vikings (purveyors of doo-wop music that anyone would recognize, if not from real life, then certainly from a plethora of movies about the 50s… Think “Dom dom dom dom, dom dee-doobie dum, wah wah wah wah”….).
From those who were actually sitting in the Sycamore in bygone years, to those who have rediscovered an era by visiting now, to newcomers who come to experience a yesteryear they never knew, the Sycamore has become a historic landmark, if not officially, then at least for all those who walk through its doors.
The Sycamore Drive-In Restaurant is open Monday through Wednesday and Friday through Sunday from 6:30am to 8:30pm and from 6:30am to 9pm on Thursdays. Handicap accessible. Cash only. For more information, visit sycamoredrivein.com.