When I was a teenager in Eugene in the 1960s, the one-mile stretch of Willamette Street south of 18th Avenue was like something out of the film “American Graffiti.”
Each Friday and Saturday night, every revved-up Chevy, Ford and Dodge owned by a local high-school student could be spotted cruising first one way and then the other, making a U-turn at the A&W diner that could have doubled for Arnold's Drive-In in the “Happy Days” television series.
I hadn't thought much about those days until I began visiting Pilot Butte Drive-In's new location in the Century Plaza shopping complex on Bend's west side.
The restaurant has no car-hop service, but the music is there; classic '60s rock blares through the sound system 15 hours a day. And the cars are there, although they are now miniatures; about two dozen tiny “rods” are mounted on the inside walls, their flame designs seeming even brighter when the Beach Boys' “Little Deuce Coupe” begins to play.
The food and service are there, too, although in both cases, they are a whole lot better than I can recall them ever being at the A&W in Eugene.
Almost since it opened on Northeast Greenwood Avenue in 1983, Pilot Butte Drive-In has consistently placed at or near the top of every “best burger” survey conducted in Central Oregon.
It took 28 years for the Bend institution to expand beyond its original digs at the foot of Pilot Butte. On June 10 — about the time school was out for summer — owners William and Tammy Falconer opened their Pilot Butte Drive-In Westside in the former Tony's Delicatessen space between Safeway and Starbucks Coffee.
‘Gooey and drippy'
The first test of a burger joint, of course, is: How are the burgers?
At Pilot Butte Drive-In Westside, they are big and juicy, served on oversized bakery Kaiser rolls with enough extras that no human mouth could possibly get around the entire sandwich.
I ordered a mushroom cheeseburger, made (like most Pilot Butte burgers) with 6 ounces of ground chuck. The bottom layer of the sandwich was, I expect, similar to what I might find on other PB burgers: a tomato-based sauce piled with shredded leaf lettuce and slices of tomato, red onion and dill pickles.
On top of that was the meat, topped with an ample quantity of fresh mushrooms, sliced and lightly sauteed. Next came cheddar cheese, melted into the meat and mushrooms, and the top bun dripped with a spread of mayonnaise. It indeed lived up to a statement made years ago by Jack Mangin, Pilot Butte's founder, and repeated on the restaurant's website: “A great burger must be gooey and drippy.”
My only complaint was that I was not given the choice of cheese that the menu promised. I might have chosen Swiss, jack or pepper jack cheese instead of cheddar.
Chicken and soup
Are all of Pilot Butte's offerings as satisfying as its burgers? More often than not, the answer is “yes.”
A grilled chicken breast sandwich was as thick as my burger had been, with most of the same extras and a knife that protruded from the heart of the bun. The presentation was much the same as the burger, although the sauce was replaced by tangy mustard with horseradish. The meat was perfectly cooked, tender and tasty.
I did not care for the accompanying potato chips. I found them thick and overcooked. A manager — who told me they are delivered pre-sliced but fried in-house — confessed that he agreed. “But if we don't cook them that long,” he said, “they're too chewy.” There are too many good potato chips on the market to diminish a meal with these.
I especially liked a cup of the house-made soup of the day. It had a little of everything, especially mushrooms and wild rice, but also diced ham and chicken, green and white onions, celery and potatoes, all in a light broth seasoned with various herbs.
Although I don't do backflips for deep-fried food, I thought a side order of fried zucchini and mushrooms wasn't bad. The vegetables were dipped in a thin tempura batter with Japanese panko bread crumbs and fried just crispy, leaving the veggies lightly cooked through.
Pilot Butte also does an excellent job with breakfasts, which it serves from 6 to 11 a.m. daily.
The menu features at least two dozen eye-opening meals, from chicken-fried steak and eggs to build-your-own omelets, and cinnamon French toast to old-fashioned waffles.
I opted for the Mexican-style Huevos Rancheros Supreme and was treated to a stratified meal so filling it pre-empted any desire I may have had for lunch that day.
Cheddar cheese was melted upon refried beans that were spread across two corn tortillas. This was topped with two eggs, cooked over easy per my request. Then came bites of grilled tri-tip steak with multicolored bell peppers, followed by a layer of salsa and big scoops of guacamole and sour cream.
Neither the salsa nor the guacamole could have been considered gourmet. In particular, the tomato-based salsa was thick and bland and the guacamole was pasty. But the rest of the dish was excellent.
I was delighted with the service I received at Pilot Butte Westside. Although diners order at the counter, meals are delivered directly to tables. These seat about 40, and bar stools accommodate another 14. Another eight tables beckon diners outside for patio dining.
There's always a friendly employee standing at the counter to take additional orders and to answer questions. At breakfast, I even had a server check back to see if I was satisfied, an action that is exceedingly rare at a fast food restaurant.
Then again, Pilot Butte's fare is not “fast food.” Each order is individually prepared, even the 18-ounce Pilot Butte Burger that has become the restaurant's trademark.
Back in the day, that might have fed an entire car full of hungry teenagers.
The Bend Food Pod , a gathering of six separate mobile kitchens, opens today at Northeast Third Street and DeKalb Avenue. Justin Brown, owner of So Wild Fish and Chips, said he would be joined by Bee's Thai, Crazy Delicious Chicken and Waffles, Mr. D's Grill, Parrilla Grill and the Patty Wagon at this location. Beer and wine are served. Live music will begin at 7:30 tonight to celebrate the grand opening. Open 7:30 (10:30) a.m. to 11 p.m. (or close) Monday to Saturday. 344 N.E. Third St.; 541-639-1372.
Seven Restaurant & Nightclub (B-): A reasonably priced menu, split between Irish and American classics, offers good meat but unexciting preparations. Friendly bartenders double as food servers in adjoining dark, austere rooms. Open 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday. 1033 N.W. Bond St., Bend; www.seven bend.com or 541-760-9412.
Pisano's Pizza (B+): Gourmet New York-style pizza, along with outstanding sandwiches and salads, make Pisano's the place for Italian pies in northwest Bend. Service, however, can be less than reliable when business is brisk. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. Sunday. 2755 N.W. Crossing Drive, Bend; www.pisanosbend.com or 541-312-9349.