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The 50 Best Drive-In Restaurants in the U.S.

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The prime of American drive-ins might be behind us, but there are still plenty of these nostalgic roadside eateries available. Whether you're looking for a quick bite or a more specialty meal, drive-ins offer one benefit that most other restaurants simply can't—fries and floats from the comfort of your own vehicle.

1. ORIGINAL SONIC DRIVE-IN // STILLWATER, OKLAHOMA

sign at the original sonic drive-in
Yelp/Kenneth H.

Sonic might now be America’s largest chain of drive-ins, but it got its start as a single restaurant with a slogan of "Service with the Speed of Sound." The original Stillwater location opened in 1959 and was fully renovated in 2015—it now has TVs to watch sports and an outdoor fire feature, but the the original sign is still on display and the carhops will still roller-skate out to your vehicle to deliver cherry limeades, chili cheese coneys, and tots.

2. MUGS UP ROOT BEER // INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI

Located in the Kansas City metropolitan area, Mugs Up has been serving homemade root beer in old-fashioned frosted mugs since 1956. And with their trademark loose-meat Zip Burgers still only costing $2.15, and a side of onion rings only setting you back $1.75, Mugs Up feels like a preserved slice of mid-century Americana.

3. RED RABBIT DRIVE-IN // DUNCANNON, PENNSYLVANIA

The '50s-style Red Rabbit Drive-In hasn't changed much since Sam and Maggie Snyder opened on Mother’s Day 1964: You’ll still find fried chicken dinners, ice cream, pizzas, made-to-order milkshakes (in regular and thick!), and fries sprinkled in “Bunny Dust” on the menu, and it’s still in the family—Sam and Maggie retired in 1988 and handed the baton to their daughter, Cindy, and her husband. Stop by and sink your teeth into the drive-in’s signature Bunny Burger, a beef patty with smoked bacon, melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, and a special mayonnaise-based sauce on "a special seeded roll." There’s no indoor seating, but hungry diners only have to put on their hazards and a server will come out to their car; they either eat in their vehicles or at picnic tables. Red Rabbit is closed in December and January; plan accordingly!

4. THE VARSITY // ATLANTA, GEORGIA

the varisty drive-in
Ken Lund, Flickr // CC by SA 2.0

If you’re looking for a chili dog in the ATL, the call of Varsity’s signature "What’ll ya have?" is too hard to resist. When it opened in 1928, Varsity was a small hot dog stand located near Georgia Tech University, perfect for college kids to pop in for a cheap bite. Today, it’s a sprawling restaurant that can accommodate 800 people inside and 600 cars, and the carhops still don paper caps while delivering Frosted Orange milkshakes and slaw dogs to the masses.

5. MATT'S PLACE DRIVE-IN // BUTTE, MONTANA

Matt’s Place, opened by Matt Korn in 1930, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. There are plenty of delicious treats to try here, from hand-churned ice cream to a BBQ pork sandwich, but the real stand-out is the Nut Burger. Cooks use an ice cream scoop to toss the ground beef on the grill; it’s flattened into a patty, cooked, and placed on a bun, where it’s topped with Miracle Whip mixed with salty chopped peanuts. There are seats inside this 2016 winner of the James Beard American Classics Award, but car-hop service is also available.

6. CAMERON'S LOBSTER HOUSE // BRUNSWICK, MAINE

When in Maine, stop by Cameron’s Lobster House in Brunswick. This drive-in seafood spot serves fresh-caught crab and lobster with every meal, including breakfast (crabmeat omelet, anyone?). Whatever time you stop by, come hungry: Menu options include a seafood combo appetizer (half a pint of scallops, shrimp, and crabs), lobster stew accompanied by oyster crackers and a grilled biscuit, and a "must try" lobster BLT that comes with chips and a pickle (if you upgrade the sandwich to a basket for an additional $3, you can choose an additional two sides). Park and leave your lights on for car-side service (there are also options to eat inside the restaurant or at outdoor picnic tables).

7. ARDY & ED'S DRIVE IN // OSHKOSH, WISCONSIN

ardy and ed's drive-in
Ardy & Ed's

Ardy & Ed's Drive In has been a summer staple in Oshkosh since 1948. Originally called the Southside A & W Drive In, it served root beer, hot dogs, and chips, before changing names—and owners—and becoming Ardy & Ed's Drive In. Even if you don’t own a vintage convertible, you can still swing by and order a draft root beer and drink it by the shores of Lake Winnebago.

8. DRIVE IN // TAYLORS FALLS, MINNESOTA

Located in the tiny town of Taylors Falls, the Drive-In turns cars into a time machine that transports passengers back to the 1950s. Poodle skirt-clad carhops bring orders of crinkle-cut fries, homemade root beer, and bison—yes, bison—burgers.

9. FENCE DRIVE-IN // MILTON, PENNSYLVANIA

Enjoy the Susquehanna River view with your burger while dining at Fence Drive-In Restaurant, a roadside drive-in located on Pennsylvania’s Route 405. It’s famous for its fish sandwich, but owner Matt Rabb also serves fresh-cut French fries; hand-breaded shrimp, scallops, and chicken; and homemade tartar sauce, red sauce, and cabbage salad, using the same recipes that founders Bob and Elva Reitz used when they first opened the Fence in 1951.

10. WAGNER'S DRIVE-IN RESTAURANT // BROOKLYN PARK, MINNESOTA

wagner's drive in
Yelp/Kohleen L.

Twin Cities residents with classic cars can show off their rides at the family-operated Wagner’s Drive-In Restaurant, which hosts a Monday Night Cruise Night where a group of motorheads called "The Wag-Niters" meet to enjoy fast-food favorites, admire other vehicles, and enjoy one another’s company. (Just don’t get any ketchup on their seats.)

11. SUMBURGER RESTAURANT // CHILLICOTHE, OHIO

Opened in 1953, Sumburger Drive-in in Chillicothe, Ohio was originally housed in a trailer and fittingly named "Trailer Drive-in." The following year, the restaurant moved to its present-day location, expanded, and changed its name to Logan View Drive-in. But since customers referred to their burgers as "some burger," they changed their name to its present moniker in 1974. Enjoy bourbon-fried chicken, fresh strawberry pie, and burgers smothered in a special "sumburger sauce" delivered carside, or drive across town to Sumburger’s newly opened sit-down restaurant for an indoor meal.

12. THE CHATTERBOX // AUGUSTA, NEW JERSEY

Settle in outside the Chatterbox or in its cozy, circular dining room for good food, classic cars and motorcycles, and great conversation. Expanding on the traditional drive-in’s all-fast-food menu, The Chatterbox offers wraps and seafood, too, although you can’t go wrong with a hefty half-pound Angus burger.

13. SUPERDAWG DRIVE-IN // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

superdawg drive in
Jondoeforty1, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A Chicago institution for almost 70 years, Superdawg brings only the best in all-beef hot dogs and classic, kitschy culture. Don’t miss the gift shop for t-shirts, key rings, and wedding cake toppers, all emblazoned with the drive-in’s lovable dancing hot dog mascots. "From the bottom of our pure beef hearts," the slogan goes, "thanks for stopping."

14. SKYWAY DRIVE-IN // AKRON, OHIO

Love fast food but hate feeling guilty about where your food comes from? The Skyway is the place for you. All of the drive-in’s burgers and sandwiches are made with fresh, locally sourced food. Dig in to their signature double-decker Sky Hi burger with cheese, pickles, and their special house Ski Hi sauce.

15. ED WALKER'S DRIVE-IN // FORT SMITH, ARKANSAS

The oversized neon sign outside of Ed Walker's may advertise their French dipped sandwiches, but according to reviews, the real showstopper is the Giant Cheeseburger—5 pounds of beef on a homemade sourdough bun, which comes with a pie server for dishing up slices of burger. Rumor has it that when Ed's first opened in 1943, they served a side of moonshine to those in the know. Though that’s likely no longer the case today, customers can still legally get a beer delivered to their cars.

16. BAR-B-Q KING DRIVE-IN // CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA

There will be no multitasking here; the fare at Bar-B-Q King is sit-down-and-focus food that requires both hands and a lot of napkins. Guy Fieri of the Food Network is partial to the eatery’s barbecue fried chicken. Add some onion rings and a cherry lemon SunDrop and you’ll be good to go.

17. SYCAMORE DRIVE-IN // BETHEL, CONNECTICUT

sycamore drive in
Janine Lamontagne

Once a week during the summer, the sleepy little town of Bethel becomes a hotspot of rock and roll. Sunday cruise nights at the Sycamore drive-in draw chromed-up classic cars, leather jackets, and laughter from all over the local area. Be sure not to miss their root beer float with homemade root beer.

18. STEWART'S // VARIOUS LOCATIONS

You might know the name for their root beer—invented by Ohio teacher Frank Stewart in the 1920s—but Stewart's has evolved to include about a dozen drive-ins scattered across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia (they also have sit-down restaurants). Customers rave about the chili dogs, crinkle-cut fries, vast menu, friendly service, and of course, the root beer floats.

19. DICK'S DRIVE-IN RESTAURANTS // SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

One of the few Northwest drive-throughs left, Dick's is a nostalgic throwback in a city experiencing rapid change; several of the five Seattle locations date back to the 1950s or early '60s. Although the simple burgers (with locally made buns) don’t offer any customization, they're a great deal and a beloved late-night eat. Fans especially swear by the cheeseburgers.

20. FRISCO'S CARHOPS // CITY OF INDUSTRY, CALIFORNIA

frisco's drive in
Yelp/Brenda A.

Frisco’s carhops serve more than just burgers. The Carhops—who are decked out in pink skirts and roller skates—will deliver your food with a side of song and dance. The house specialty is the parmesan sourdough bread, which they swap for the buns on their burgers, but the restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in case you need a pancake pick-me-up in the morning.

21. AMMONS DRIVE-INN RESTAURANT AND DAIRY BAR // WAYNESVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA

If you want an old-timey meal at an old-timey price, you can't go wrong at Ammons, where a hamburger still costs less than $2. The menu has more than just burgers, though. You can also pick up some fried seafood, barbecue pork, a whole cheesecake, or one of their handmade shakes. The nearby Asheville Press recommends the cobbler, which comes in various flavors that rotate throughout the week.

22. MAC'S DRIVE-IN // WATERLOO, NEW YORK

Mac’s Drive-In has been operating every summer since 1961, when it was one of the first fast-food joints in its area and the first to offer curb service. Locals and tourists visiting the Finger Lakes have eagerly awaited the hamburger stand’s opening day ever since. In 2015, they served up 1500 pounds of French fries—all cut fresh on-site—on the first day of the season alone. Don’t leave without a frosty mug of Richardson’s beer, which they pour from a mini-keg that’s been a fixture on the front counter since the restaurant first opened.

23. CHUCK-A-BURGER // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Chuck-A-Burger's '50s-style burger and shake experience doesn't end with the food: On the last Saturday of each month through September, the drive-in hosts a classic car show featuring customs and hot rods.

24. DARI-ETTE DRIVE IN // ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA

dariette drive-in
Jerry Huddleston, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Dari-ette Drive In goes beyond the normal burger-and-fries fare of most diners, serving up Italian specialties, too. Operating since 1951, they claim to serve the best meatballs in the Twin Cities and were featured on the first season of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. If you can’t give up the idea of having a burger at a drive-in, you can order the Pizza Burger, a patty melt made with Italian seasoning and homemade red sauce.

25. THE BEACON DRIVE-IN // SPARTANBURG, SOUTH CAROLINA

It may not be great for up-close conversing—the place goes through three tons of onions a week—but the seven-decade-old Beacon is worth the drive for its Chili-Cheese-A-Plenty, a burger drowning in chili and French-fried potatoes.

26. DOG HOUSE DRIVE IN // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

In general, walking in the footsteps of Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman is a terrible idea. Hitting up Dog House along Route 66, as he does several times in the AMC series, is one of the exceptions. Dog House is known for its spicy chili dogs, but patrons also say Dog House makes the best Frito Pie around.

27. KING TUT DRIVE-IN // BECKLEY, WEST VIRGINIA

You can get your burger fix here, but King Tut's menu is more than beef: Stone-baked pizza is served daily, and all of their breads are made in-house. Opening daily (save for Wednesdays) at 11 a.m., workers get there early to start making pies from scratch.

28. PEPPERMINT TWIST // DELANO, MINNESOTA

Gourmet burgers attract the adults, but it's the adjoining teddy bear-themed playground that keeps the kids occupied at Peppermint Twist, a favorite of Delano locals. The location was painted hot pink in the 1980s to make sure they stood out against a nearby Hardee's. It worked, and the Twist is a regular fixture of Minnesota "best of" lists.

29. KELLER'S DRIVE-IN // DALLAS, TEXAS

Keller's is one of the few places in America you can drive up, order a beer, and sip it in your car. If suds aren't your thing, you'll still get a buzz from their famous No. 5 burger—two patties on a poppy-seed bun.

30. BILL'S HOT DOG STAND // YPSILANTI, MICHIGAN

Famous for their chili dogs, Bill's also offers up a little bit of performance art. When patrons pull up to the bright yellow shop, car hops take their order instead of a speaker system. The servers then relay the menu items to workers inside via hand signal.

31. BOOMER'S DRIVE-IN // BELLINGHAM, WASHINGTON

Homemade milkshakes are practically a prerequisite for any self-respecting drive-in, but Boomer's goes a step further by sourcing from a local dairy farm. The custom is to order one of their regular or monthly special shakes and then use it as a dip for their trademark waffle fries.

32. CORRAL DRIVE-IN // GUYMON, OKLAHOMA

The menu at this drive-in movie theater goes beyond popcorn. The Corral is home to a full-kitchen pizzeria and grill serving up specialties like calzones and Philly cheesesteaks, but customers who don’t have the appetite for a full meal can find more typical movie theater concessions like hot dogs, nachos, and chili cheese fries as well.

33. GEORGE THE CHILI KING // DES MOINES, IOWA

george the chili king signage
Yelp/David D.

George the Chili King opened in the 1950s when drive-ins were a popular option for hungry motorists. A lot has changed since then, but their carhop service and all-American menu remains the same. The restaurant serves drive-in classics like burgers and fries, but (obviously) it's the chili that made it a local institution.

34. BOBO'S DRIVE IN // TOPEKA, KANSAS

Located on 10th Avenue in Topeka, Kansas, Bobo’s Drive-In is hard to miss. Hungry travelers can recognize it from the neon tubing poking out from the roof or the vintage 7-Up sign overlooking the road. Inside and in the parking lot, Bobo’s serves specialties like onion rings, apple pie, and burgers topped with their signature Spanish sauce.

35. MURDO DRIVE-IN // MURDO, SOUTH DAKOTA

Murdo Drive-In has been serving comforting roadside fare to locals for over 30 years. Every May, the restaurant reopens and fires up the grill for customers dining inside, on the front patio, or in their cars. But note that they close for the season on August 31, so you'll have to go elsewhere for burgers and soft-serve during the fall and winter months.

36. FROSTOP DRIVE-IN // VARIOUS LOCATIONS

You can't miss Frostop—it’s the drive-in with the giant rotating mug of creamy root beer perched on top of the building (or on a pole). The first Frostop opened in Springfield, Ohio, in 1926, serving classic soda fountain fare like burgers, shakes, and, of course, frosty mugs of root beer. Frostop had 350 locations across the U.S. at its peak in the early 1960s, but now they're down to just a handful in Louisiana, Illinois, Idaho, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Utah. You'd do well to find one, whether for the nostalgia factor or for the cold-brewed root beer made from the original recipe.

37. RAINBOW DRIVE-IN // HONOLULU, HAWAII

Rainbow Drive in
Eugene Peretz, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

When Rainbow Drive-In first opened in 1961, the menu included $.25 hamburgers and $1 steak lunches. Prices have inflated a bit since then, but the owners still pride themselves in serving classic Hawaiian lunch plates—with plenty of mahi mahi and spam options— at affordable prices.

38. MAC'S DRIVE-IN // MCCOOK, NEBRASKA

For homemade pies and tarts, thick shakes, and perfectly crispy fries, look no further than Mac's in McCook, Nebraska. Customers can order from their cars or opt for an inside booth, where they place their orders using phones at each table. And if that’s not kitschy enough for you, you can always order the Jell-O salad for just $1.60.

39. MOON LIGHT DRIVE IN // TITUSVILLE, FLORIDA

The Moon Light Drive In is appropriately named—it’s just a five-minute drive from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. When the owners opened the now-iconic establishment in 1964, they had the Apollo missions in mind. Locals and NASA tourists alike rave about the perfectly cooked burgers and creamy milkshakes, which one Yelper declares "the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my entire life."

40. DOUMAR'S DRIVE-IN // NORFOLK, VIRGINIA

Doumar's Drive-In.
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After introducing the first waffle cone at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, Abe Doumar turned his sweet invention into a business. Doumar's still uses Abe’s original waffle iron to make their ice cream cones 100 years later. Ice cream isn’t the only item you’ll find on the menu of this Virginia drive-in. They also serve burgers, hot dogs, and barbecue.

41. KING LOUIE'S DRIVE-IN // WOOD RIVER, ILLINOIS

This St. Louis-area burger stand is enough of a local fixture that when the owners of 18 years made the recent decision to start closing the restaurant each Sunday, they posted their personal cell phone number for patrons to call them with questions and comments. While you're there, make sure to try the homemade root beer, which you can buy by the gallon, and if you dare, try the King of the Jungle Challenge—if you can finish a 2-pound burger, loaded potato planks, and a 32-ounce soda in under 30 minutes, you’ll win a t-shirt and eternal glory.

42. RODEO DRIVE-IN // BREMETON, WASHINGTON

Built in 1949, the Rodeo Drive-In now claims to be largest drive-in movie theater north of California (they can hold about 1000 cars) as well as one of the oldest in the country. But they’re also known for having a great food selection, including Philly cheesesteaks, "mega-pizzas" with all the toppings, fish and chips, and distinctive pizza dogs. The use of a pager system means you can watch the movie in your car (they have a selection of latest releases, not just old favorites!) while you wait for your food, instead of standing in line.

43. WAYNE'S DRIVE INN // LAWTON, OKLAHOMA

Locals love the juicy burgers, steak fingers, ice cream, onion rings, and endless drink combinations at Wayne's (they've got 12 homemade flavors for mixing; the cherry limeade is a particular specialty). The servings run large, and so does the nostalgia—the business has been open since 1950.

44. AVI'S SCREAMERS // WICKENBURG, ARIZONA

avi's screamers drive in
Yelp/Rob P.

People drive from out of town just for their green chili burgers and chili cheese fries at Screamers, and leave raving about the taste and low prices. More than just a novelty stop, the hand-pressed burgers won’t disappoint.

45. JERRY'S CURB SERVICE // BEAVER, PENNSYLVANIA

Jerry's Curb Service has been flipping burgers and delivering fries and shakes to your car window since 1947. As legend has it, the Steak Salad was invented at Jerry's in the 1960s when an unnamed patron ordered a steak sandwich, hold the bun, with fries and salad dressing. According to Jerry’s, "Not one to disappoint a customer, [Jerry's wife] Donna Reed placed the order. She noticed the man cut up the steak, mixed in the fries and poured the salad dressing on top. Curious about this rather odd concoction, Donna decided to try it for herself, but with one small change. Donna placed her sliced steak, fries and salad dressing atop a fresh bed of lettuce." Today you can order Donna’s version as well as the man’s original order.

46. DON'S DRIVE-IN // TRAVERSE CITY, MICHIGAN

With its neon sign, red banquettes, and summertime carhop service, Don's Drive-In is a delightful 1950s throwback. The menu is chock full of American diner classics—burgers and dogs (cooked "the way you like 'em," chicken fingers, patty melts, onion rings, and hand-dipped milkshakes and malts—and has barely changed since Don’s opened its doors in 1958 (although we’re guessing the veggie burger is new).

47. THE PARKETTE DRIVE-IN // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

Originally opened by Joe Smiley in 1951, the Parkette underwent a renovation and restoration in 2008. New owners Jeff and Randy Kaplan may have given the kitchen and dining room a makeover, but the car port call boxes, carhops, and landmark 40-foot-tall sign remain. Order a Poor Boy—a double-decker burger with all the fixings invented by Smiley—a Hot Brown Burger, or some Kentucky fried chicken for a gut-busting meal. The Parkette also hosts regular "cruise ins," or classic car showcases, in its parking lot.

48. THE DONUT HOLE // LA PUENTE, CALIFORNIA

The donut hole
Yelp/Indah K.

If you’re the kind of person who is afraid of driving through tunnels, the Donut Hole might be the place that helps you get over the phobia. Drive into short tunnel that’s capped by two 26-foot fiberglass doughnuts. The landmark, founded in 1968, is open 24 hours and boasts flavors ranging from the classic cake doughnut to ones covered in Fruity Pebbles.

49. FALAFEL'S DRIVE-IN // SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA

In 1966, Anton and Zahie Nijmeh moved to San Jose and opened a drive-in, where they sold typical American fare like burgers, hot dogs, and onion rings. But that was just the beginning. The couple slowly started to introduce falafel and other middle eastern foods into the mix. Where else do gyros, kabobs, tabbouleh, and delicious "yogurt drink" share menu space with fries and shakes?

50. CHARLIE'S DRIVE-IN // HORTONVILLE, WISCONSIN

When it comes to Charlie's Drive-In, Elvis has never left the building: For less than three bucks, the King of Rock can serve you a classic burger. Each Tuesday, the restaurant, which has been operating for 1965, hosts a classic car night where anybody driving a classic Chevy or Caddy will get a free mug of root beer with a sandwich.

Written by Erika Berlin, Stacy Conradt, Michele Debczak, Kirstin Fawcett, Shaunacy Ferro, Kate Horowitz, Bess Lovejoy, Erin McCarthy, Lucas Reilly, Jake Rossen, and Abbey Stone.

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The Science Behind Why We Crave Loud and Crunchy Foods
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A number of years ago, food giant Unilever polled consumers asking how the company might improve their popular line of Magnum ice cream bars. The problem, respondents said, was that the chocolate coating of the bars tended to fall off too quickly, creating blotches of sticky goo on carpeting. Unilever reacted by changing the recipe to make the chocolate less prone to spills.

When they tested the new and improved product, they expected a warm reception. Instead, they got more complaints than before. While the updated bar didn’t make a mess, it also didn’t make the distinctive crackle that its fans had grown accustomed to. Deprived of hearing the coating collapse and crumble, the experience of eating the ice cream was fundamentally changed. And not for the better.

Smell and taste researcher Alan Hirsch, M.D. refers to it as the “music of mastication,” an auditory accompaniment to the sensory stimulus of eating. “For non-gustatory, non-olfactory stimulation, people prefer crunchiness,” he tells Mental Floss. Humans love crunchy, noisy snacks, that loud rattling that travels to our inner ear via air and bone conduction and helps us identify what it is we’re consuming. Depending on the snack, the noise can reach 63 decibels. (Normal conversations are around 60 dB; rustling leaves, 20 dB.)

When we hear it, we eat more. When we don’t—as in the case of Magnum bars, or a soggy, muted potato chip—we resort to other senses, looking at our food with doubt or sniffing it for signs of expiration. Psychologically, our lust for crispy sustenance is baked in. But why is it so satisfying to create a cacophony of crunch? And if we love it so much, why do some of us actually grow agitated and even aggressive when we hear someone loudly chomping away? It turns out there’s a lot more to eating with our ears than you might have heard.

 
 

The science of crunch has long intrigued Charles Spence, Ph.D., a gastrophysicist and professor of experimental psychology and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. Food companies have enlisted him and consulted his research across the spectrum of ingestion, from packaging to shapes to the sound chips make rustling around in grocery carts.

“We’re not born liking noisy foods,” he tells Mental Floss. “Noise doesn’t give a benefit in terms of nutrition. But we don’t like soggy crisps even if they taste the same. Missing the sound is important.”

In 2003, Spence decided to investigate the sonic appeal of chips in a formal setting. To keep a semblance of control, he selected Pringles, which are baked uniformly—a single Pringle doesn't offer any significant difference in size, thickness, or crunch from another. He asked 20 research subjects to bite into 180 Pringles (about two cans) while seated in a soundproof booth in front of a microphone. The sound of their crunching was looped back into a pair of headphones.

After consuming the cans, they were asked if they perceived any difference in freshness or crispness from one Pringle to another. What they didn’t know was that Spence had been playing with the feedback in their headphones, raising or lowering the volume of their noisy crunching [PDF]. At loud volumes, the chips were reported to be fresher; chips ingested while listening at low volume were thought to have been sitting out longer and seemed softer. The duplicitous sounds resulted in a radical difference in chip perception. It may have been a small study, but in the virtually non-existent field of sonic chip research, it was groundbreaking.

A view inside a potato chip bag
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For Spence, the results speak to what he considers the inherent appeal of crunchy foods. “Noisy foods correlate with freshness,” he says. “The fresher the produce, like apples, celery, or lettuce, the more vitamins and nutrients it’s retained. It’s telling us what’s in the food.”

Naturally, this signal becomes slightly misguided when it reinforces the quality of a potato chip, a processed slab of empty calories. But Spence has a theory on this, too: “The brain likes fat in food, but it’s not so good at detecting it through our mouths. Noisy foods are certainly fattier on average.”

Fatty or fresh, raising decibels while eating may also have roots in less appetizing behaviors. For our ancestors who ate insects, the crunch of a hard-bodied cricket symbolized nourishment. In a primal way, violently mincing food with our teeth could also be a way to vent and dilute aggression. “There are some psychoanalytic theories related to crunchiness and aggressive behavior,” Hirsch says. “When you bite into ice or potato chips, you’re sublimating that in a healthy way.”

 
 

All of these factors explain why crunch appeals to us. But is it actually affecting what we taste?

Yes—but maybe not the way you’d think. “Sound affects the experience of food,” Spence says. “The noise draws attention to the mouth in the way something silent does not. If you’re eating pâté, your attention can drift elsewhere, to a television or to a dining companion. But a crunch will draw your attention to what you’re eating, making you concentrate on it. Noisy foods make you think about them.”

That crunch can also influence how much food we consume. Because noisy foods tend to be fatty, Spence says, they’ll retain their flavor longer. And because the noise reinforces our idea of what we’re eating, it affords us a sense of security that allows us to keep consuming without having to look at our snack—not so important in a brightly-lit room, but crucial if we’re in a dark movie theater. “It becomes more important when you can’t see what you’re eating,” Spence says.

Thanks to this hard-wired feedback, the snack industry has made it a priority to emphasize the sounds of their foods in both development and marketing. In the 1980s, Frito-Lay funded extensive work at a Dallas plant that involved $40,000 chewing simulators. There, they discovered the ideal breaking point for a chip was four pounds per square inch (PSI), just a fraction of what we might need to tear into a steak (150 to 200 PSI). The quality and consistency of the potatoes themselves is also key, according to Herbert Stone, Ph.D., a food scientist who has worked with companies on product development. “Too thick, too hard, and people don’t like them,” Stone tells Mental Floss. “Too thin and they just crumble.”

The right potato sliced at the right thickness with the right oil at the right temperature results in a solid chip—one resilient enough to make for a satisfying break when it hits your molars, but vanishing so quickly that your brain and body haven’t even processed the calories you’ve just taken in. “If they pick it up and put it in the mouth and the crunch is not what they expect, they might put it down,” Stone says. “It’s about expectation.”

A shopper examines a bag of potato chips
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Walk down the snack aisle in your local supermarket or glance at commercials and you’ll find no shortage of claims about products being the boldest, crunchiest chip available. For years, Frito-Lay marketed Cheetos as “the cheese that goes crunch!” Even cereals try to capitalize on the fervor, making mascots—Snap, Crackle, and Pop—out of the sound their Rice Krispies make when submerged in milk. One ad for a brand of crisps drew attention for “cracking” the viewer’s television screen.

For most consumers, the promise of sonic flavor will draw their attention. But for a small number of people diagnosed with a condition dubbed misophonia, the sound of a co-worker or partner crunching on chips isn’t at all pleasurable. It’s insufferable.

 
 

According to Connecticut audiologist Natan Bauman, M.D., the average noise level of someone masticating a potato chip is between 25 to 35 decibels. (Other sources peg it as closer to 63 dB when you're chewing on a chip with your mouth open, or 55 dB with your lips closed.) When you hear your own chewing, the sound is being conducted both via the air and your own bones, giving it a distinctively unique sound. (Like talking, hearing yourself chewing on a recording might be troubling.)

For someone suffering from misophonia, or the literal hatred of specific sounds, it's not their own chomping that's the problem. It's everyone else's.

When we chew, Bauman says, the auditory cortical and limbic system areas of our brain are lighting up, getting information about freshness and texture. But people with misophonia aren’t struggling with their own sounds. Instead, they're affected by others typing, clicking pens, or, more often, chewing. The sound of someone snacking is routed from the cochlea, or cavity in the inner ear, and becomes an electric signal that winds up in the brain’s amygdala, which processes fear and pleasure. That's true for everyone, but in misophonics, it lands with a thud. They’ve likely developed a trigger, or negative association, with the sounds stemming from an incident in childhood.

“If you are scolded by a parent and they happen to be eating, or smacking, it becomes negative reinforcement,” Bauman says. Chewing, lip smacking, and even breathing become intolerable for sufferers, who often feel agitated and nervous, with corresponding increases in heart rate. Some fly into a rage.

Misophonics don’t necessarily recoil at all of these sounds all of the time: It may depend on who’s doing the snacking. Often, it’s a co-worker, spouse, or family member munching away that prompts a response. Fearing they’ll damage that relationship, sufferers tend to vent online. The misophonia subreddit is home to threads with titles like “And the popcorn eater sits RIGHT next to me on the plane” and “Chips can go f-ck themselves.” (The entire content of the latter: “F-ck chips, man. That is all.”)

Bauman says misophonia can be treated using cognitive therapy. An earpiece can provide white noise to reduce trigger sounds while sufferers try to retrain their brain to tolerate the noises. But even the sight of a bag of chips can be enough to send them scrambling.

People with misophonia might also want to exercise caution when traveling. Although some Asian cultures minimize crunchy snacks because loud snacking is considered impolite, other parts of the world can produce noisier mealtimes. “In parts of Asia, you show appreciation for food by slurping,” Spence says. Slurping is even associated with a more intense flavor experience, particularly when it’s in the setting of a comparatively quiet dining establishment.

Western culture favors noisier restaurants, and there’s a good reason for that. Supposedly Hard Rock Café has mastered the art of playing loud and fast music, resulting in patrons who talked less, ate faster, and left more quickly, allowing operators to turn over tables more times in an evening.

Spence believes sound will continue to be important to gastronomy, to chefs, and to food companies looking to sell consumers on a complete experience. Snack shelves are now full of air-puffed offerings like 3-D Doritos and Pop Chips that create pillows of taste. With less volume, you’ll snack more and crunch for longer periods.

A woman snacks on a chip
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But the sound of the chip is just one part of the equation. The way a bag feels when you pick it up at the store, the aroma that wafts out when you first open the bag, the concentration of flavor from the granules of seasoning on your fingers—it’s all very carefully conducted to appeal to our preferences.

“When we hear the rattle of crisps, it may encourage people to start salivating, like Pavlov’s dogs,” Spence says, referring to the Russian scientist who trained his canines to salivate when he made a certain sound. We’re conditioned to anticipate the flavor and enjoyment of chips as soon as we pick up a package. Even hearing or saying the words crispy and crunchy can prime us for the experience.

When we’re deprived of that auditory cue, we can get annoyed. After news reports emerged that Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi had mentioned her company might consider a quieter version of Doritos for women—an idea PepsiCo later denied they would label in a gender-specific fashion—women Doritos enthusiasts rallied around the Texas state capitol, condemning the perceived gender discrimination. To protest the possible dilution of their favorite snack, they made a spectacle of crunching Doritos as loudly as they could.

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London Grocery Chain Encourages Shoppers to Bring Their Own Tupperware
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Why stop at bringing your own grocery bags to the store? One London grocery wants you to BYO-Tupperware. The London Evening Standard reports that a UK chain called Planet Organic has partnered with Unpackaged—a company dedicated to sustainable packaging—to install self-serve bulk-food dispensers where customers can fill their own reusable containers with dry goods, cutting down on plastic packaging waste.

To use the system, customers walk up and weigh their empty container at a self-serve station, printing and attaching a label with its tare weight. Then, they can fill it with flour, nuts, or other kinds of dry goods, weigh it again, and print the price tag before taking it up to the check out. (Regular customers only have to weigh their containers once, since they can save the peel-off label to use again next time.)

Planet Organic is offering cereals, legumes, grains, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, and even some cleaning products in bulk as part of this program, significantly reducing the amount of waste shoppers would otherwise be taking home on each grocery trip.

Zero-waste grocery stores have been popping up in Europe for several years. These shops, like Berlin's Original Unverpackt, don't offer any bags or containers, asking customers bring their own instead. This strategy also encourages people to buy only what they need, which eliminates food waste—there's no need to buy a full 5-pound bag of flour if you only want to make one cake.

The concept is also gaining traction in North America. The no-packaging grocery store in.gredients opened in Austin, Texas in 2011. The Brooklyn store Package Free, opened in 2017, takes the idea even further, marketing itself as a one-stop shop for "everything that you'd need to transition to a low waste lifestyle." It sells everything from tote bags to laundry detergent to dental floss.

[h/t London Evening Standard]

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