July 27, 2020

Garin Pirnia

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Curbside Comfort

Akron’s other drive-in burger joint is as important as ever

My mom grew up in Akron, and every Saturday night when she was a kid, she and her parents, her brother, and her dog, Blackie, went to Skyway Drive-In Restaurant in the suburb of Fairlawn.

The first of two Skyway locations opened in 1952. It’s still staffed by carhops, as seen in American Graffiti.

They offered curbside service long before the pandemic hit. You must turn your car lights on for service, and then an attendant takes your order and sets your food on a tray clipped to your window. Customers are not allowed inside the restaurant—not even to use the bathroom.

Skyway and the other carhop joint in town, Swensons Drive-In, which opened nearly twenty years earlier in 1934, have developed a rivalry, once explored on Food Network’s Food Feuds. Every Akronite gets the question “Do you prefer Skyway or Swensons?” Akronite LeBron James prefers Swensons, but my mom and her family always went for Skyway.

Back in the day, my mom would order a thirty-five-cent hamburger with tomatoes and mustard, or a toasted cheese sandwich, which came on a homemade bun with a sliver of the top carved out and filled with melted butter. (My mom makes this for me at home.) The dog got a plain hamburger.

Curbside Comfort - Quote

Every Akronite gets the question “Do you prefer Skyway or Swensons?” Akronite LeBron James prefers Swensons, but my mom and her family always went for Skyway.

In the 1980s, my mom continued the family tradition with my brothers and me. Our annual visit to Akron to see my grandma—she didn’t have cable and she lived in the middle of nowhere—included a much-needed pit stop at Skyway. It was an excuse to eat junk food. We’d get orange drink (no brand, just the generic name), sauerkraut balls (my mom makes the best, though), fries, and burgers, and we’d sit in my mom’s station wagon, stuffing our greasy faces. My grandma didn’t like Skyway, so we didn’t have to share.

My Akron-native cousin Gary, though, is a Swensons guy. He loves their double burgers (called “Galley Boys”) so much that his mom and his mother-in-law pack burgers in their suitcases when they go to visit him in L.A.

My grandma died in 1998, and after that, we mostly stopped going to Akron. Years passed, and in 2015, I found myself back in the area. I visited Swensons and Skyway on the same day, this time without my family. As far as I knew, it was my first time at Swensons, which has several locations in Akron and more in and around Canton, Cleveland, and Columbus. It was packed for the lunch rush, but I thought the food was just okay.

Skyway was empty, and therefore quick and efficient. I ordered my usual: orange drink, toasted cheese, and fries, with burgers and sauerkraut balls to take to my mom and brother in Dayton. It was just what I remembered. Maybe it’s Skyway’s vintage sign or the nostalgia it evokes, but I will always choose it over Swensons. (Sorry, cousin Gary.)

In this pandemic, though, both institutions and their carhops have become more vital. Even though my family’s memories of those drive-ins are rooted in the past, the two local institutions were ahead of their time—midcentury relics safely supporting today’s young and hungry families in northwestern Ohio.


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