There’s a peculiar stretch of Route 24, after you leave Bowdoin college, but before you arrive in the gigantic, slowly-dying 90s-style strip mall that makes up nearly all of Cook’s Corner. You can imagine how it must have existed in the motoring heyday of the 1960′s, with its short parade of auto body shops, marine supply stores, independent motor inns, and drive-in hamburger restaurants. Located across from the wide open space of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station sits one of these restaurants (though there are others…more on this later), as it has since the 1960′s: The Fat Boy Drive In.
Pulling into the parking lot is like traveling through time, but not in that obnoxious, over-the-top, Johnny Rockets-style, super self-aware way that gets under your skin and makes you say incredibly lame travel-journalism-wannabe cliches like “pulling into the parking lot is like traveling through time.” The small building is dwarfed by a wraparound green-and-white fiberglass awning that casts a pale, cool green light on everything. From the moment you ease into an available parking space, the Drive-In starts issuing instructions: “Headlights on for service,” one sign reads. Another urges you to, “Try a BLT, made with Canadian bacon, and an order of onion rings.” While I considered the hand-painted menu (with my lights off, no less), a carhop appeared to take my order.
I must be exactly the kind of customer kids like this can’t stand, with my obnoxious lobster vanity license plate and my endless questions. “Should I order the ‘Royalburger,’ or the ‘Whoperburger?’” My patient waitress explained that a “Royalburger Basket” ($3.50) was just a regular, 2 oz. cheeseburger, with the addition of lettuce, tomato, mayo, and a side of fries, while a “Whoperburger” ($3.30) was a larger, 4 0z. burger that, presumably, was a knockoff of Burger King’s famous burger. Does the single “P” indicate that I should be pronouncing the name of this burger like “Woe-per?” And finally, what should I put on for toppings?
The carhop walked me through the process, ultimately handing me a printed menu to show off the full width and breadth of what was available. I was surprised to see, in addition to the burgers already listed on the large outdoor menus, a wide variety of fried seafood options, including clamcake burgers, crabcake sandwiches, haddock sandwiches, and lobster rolls. There were sweet potato fries and chicken nuggets. Grilled cheese and chicken salad. Red-skinned hot dogs and egg sandwiches. I settled on a “Whoperburger,” an extra regular cheeseburger with grilled onions, an order of onion rings, and an order of fries. Total? Ten bucks.
Because everything is cooked-to-order, it took about ten minutes for my order to arrive. And that, immediately, is what sets these burgers apart from their fast-food namesakes. The Whoperburger was like the freshest Burger King Whopper you’ve never had, with thoughtful, homemade details like some light crispy browning on the edges of the sesame seed bun, thinly sliced, fresh tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and a river of mayonnaise. I wish there had been a slice of pickle, but this is probably something I could have specified.
The accompanying fries weren’t worth ordering again: frozen, boring, crinkle-cut, and a little on the limp side, they occupied space in my stomach that I would have rather spent on something else, such as one of Fat Boy’s famous blueberry 20-ounce thick ice cream frappes. The onion rings were better, with sweet flavor from the onions, and seemingly homemade crunch and texture.
The real star here, though, was in the regular cheeseburgers. I wished that I had skipped ordering anything else, and focused all of my efforts there. They come plain, but can be topped with almost anything you’d like for little or no additional cost. I opted for just cheese and grilled onions, with each bite dipped whole into a side of ketchup. The small, steamed buns, melted cheese, and tiny little slip of beef all fuse into one tasty whole, and my extra burger was gone before I even had time to realize what had happened.
Ultimately, though, the food is almost secondary to the Fat Boy Drive-In experience. The food, and, for that matter, reviews of it, are kind of beside the point. The Fat Boy Drive-In has been doing exactly what it is doing today for 56 years, and that’s why you go. You can get a mushy, overwrought Wagyu burger served on a melted brioche bun almost anywhere, these days…but eating piles of inexpensive, tiny, white paper-wrapped cheeseburgers that somebody actually made and brought you, from a tray hanging off the driver’s side window of your car, is an experience that is getting more and more difficult to come by. That nostalgia is enough to make you try the burgers at a place like the Fat Boy Drive-In; the fact that those burgers happen to be excellent is purely a bonus.