Z’s Drive-in

old wooden fence with a gate


Wautoma, Wisconsin.

The corner of Highway 21 and Highway 22.

That’s where Z’s Drive-in sat, with its peeling paint, and simple, hand-painted sign.

It’s not even a drive-in, because you have to walk up to the window to order.

A screened-in dining area with picnic tables and a pinball machine rests by the kitchen. Behind the restaurant there’s a grassy lot with a swing set, picnic tables, and a merry-go-round sprawling back to a white picket fence. And at the edge of the lot is a gate that leads to a small garden.

A looming wooden sign on the corner of the parking lot announces with hand-painted words “Z’s Drive-in.” At least, that’s what the sign read when I first visited Z’s Drive-in one summer, long ago. The place used to have another name. You could tell by the way the sign was painted. Faded, barely visible letters peeked out from behind and between and underneath the new ones. Like a scene from a movie that hadn’t quite faded away when the next scene began.

I guess the previous owners went out of business. I’ll bet if you asked the folks who live around here, not too many would remember what the place used to be called. To them, it was Z’s.

I had Tuesdays off that summer. So, one hot Tuesday in early June, I took my wife to town for lunch.

“Where do you want to eat?” I asked her. “How about here?”


“Here. Z’s Drive-in. I’ve never been here before. It looks fun.”

“Sure, whatever,” she said.

So, I pulled across the intersection and parked, and went to the order window. We were the only ones in the parking lot.

Everything on the menu started with the letter “z.” I ordered the “Z’s burrito,” Liesl got a “Z-burger,” we had two “Z-bars” for dessert. It cost $5.95. The ice water was free.

A friendly, curly-haired lady in her early thirties hummed through the window as she prepared our food. She delivered the tray to us outside at the picnic table where she had encouraged us to “sit and enjoy the breeze.” A few feet away, the garden gate hung awkwardly on one hinge, creaking occasionally. Just beyond that lay a freshly planted garden.

“Nice place you’ve got here,” I said.

She smiled and nodded. “Thank you, we like it.”


“My friend and I.”

Then she looked away from me, and stared toward the garden. Tourists and water-skiers, sunsets and long walks, Z-bars and summer romance flashed in her eyes. She was about to add something else, but stopped.

I thought it was a remarkable thing to move with a friend to a vacation town, spend all your savings to buy a restaurant with a view of the horizon over a cornfield, and grow a garden.

I tried to think of something profound to say. Instead I said, “I’ll bet it’s been an adventure.”

She turned from the garden, glanced at me, smiled, and walked back to the kitchen. She was humming when she left.

Throughout July and August we enjoyed visiting Z’s Drive-in almost every week on our day off. My wife and I introduced our friends to the Z-bar. And as the summer passed us by we watched that small garden grow tall at Z’s Drive-in.

After the summer had waned and autumn nipped the air, I drove past the corner of Highway 21 and Highway 22. The tourists were gone. Trees had turned from green to orange and red and gold. The northern wind and wild skies reminded me that winter was coming quickly to Wisconsin. And when I glanced toward the restaurant, I noticed a flashy new sign on the corner of the parking lot. The words “Z’s Drive-in” had been painted over. In bold bright letters the sign read “Dragon Drive-in.”

Someone I didn’t recognize was locking the place up for the winter and as I drove past, I noticed that the garden where fruit had grown all summer was withered and brown, and the gate was locked.


But that fruit had grown. That garden had flourished for a whole summer.

And sometimes, that’s enough.

3 thoughts on “Z’s Drive-in

  • Donna Galanti

    Steven, boy does this brings back my drive-in memories. In the days before the movie audio was even on the radio and you had to hang the speaker on your door. I vividly remember a not so great first date to see Back To The Future and a rather great date to Karate Kid, where I missed most of it. 🙂 The drive-in I grew up in is still there, in a field on the mountain, and still runs movies each summer. Sadly, I’ve seen too many other drive-ins been turned into Target’s and Mall’s. Keep your summer memories of Z’s – they’re part of an America that won’t be around forever.

  • Norb Vonnegut

    Steven, I love your description of Z’s. Sorry it’s no longer there. I could have gone for the Z-burrito.

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