It would be easy for one to think they’d been transported back in time if they stopped by downtown Modesto’s A&W restaurant on a summer Friday night, with the headlights of classic cars illuminating the parking lot and Elvis Presley singing on stage.
The locally owned eatery has made it a point to keep the city’s rich graffiti history alive through these weekly car shows, complete with Rock-n-Roll impersonators and stories of cruising down McHenry Avenue told by those who experienced it some decades ago. If that weren’t enough to take customers back to the 1960s, those who stop in for a burger or root beer float are also treated to top-notch service from the restaurant’s roller-skating carhops — an image all too familiar for Central Valley fans of the Modesto-inspired film “American Graffiti.”
“I didn’t grow up in the graffiti era, but it’s something that I hear about from all of our customers who come in and tell us the stories of downtown Modesto and cruising,” A&W manager Jennifer Rushman said. “Our shows with the old cars and impersonators really kind of brought back that era after the whole cruising thing was shut down.”
Rushman has worked at the A&W on G Street for over two decades, sharing graffiti culture with customers and helping to keep it alive through the restaurant’s dedication to all things classic. Decor featuring graffiti memorabilia and kid-friendly events allow grandparents to show their grandchildren what they used to do for fun, Rushman said, and the nostalgia creates a home-like atmosphere not found at most fast food restaurants.
“We’re pretty much a family here,” Rushman said.
The drive-in is known as the home of The Pharaohs, a local classic car club, and others come from far and wide to the Friday evening car shows hosted at A&W from June through September. Hula hoop contests, karaoke and cars make for quite the event, Rushman added, and the shows have brought the community together since the late 90s.
Keeping the graffiti culture alive in Modesto is important to the entire staff at A&W, said Rushman, and they know cruising and cars are synonymous with the city.
“I think for a lot of people it’s about the nostalgia, that even though they didn’t grow up in that era, they watched the old movies and know that was a big part of everything here,” she said. “It’s a rewarding experience when we’re in full swing and I can’t wait until we can get back to that.”
A&W still held car shows outdoors when it was safe to do so during the pandemic, and things have returned to somewhat normal since the state’s reopening in June. Still, labor shortages as a result of COVID have left the drive-in without their famous carhops until they can hire enough workers to meet demand.
Until then, Central Valley residents can still get their graffiti fix at the weekly car shows hosted by the restaurant.
“We invite everyone to bring their lawn chairs and their family, sit back and have an awesome burger and root beer and watch the festivities,” Rushman said.
Car shows at A&W are held from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Friday during summer at the downtown Modesto location, 1404 G St. For more information, call 209-522-7700.