Napa As It Was, James Ford, Knotty Pine Drive-In

A midcentury photo of the popular Knotty Pine Drive-in, a popular cruisin’ site on Jefferson Street, across from Napa High School.

A few weeks ago, I received an email that forwarded a photo of the old Wright Spot Drive-in in Napa. The photo brought back a lot of memories of Rome Wright, the owner, and his hole-in-the-wall diner on Third Street of the 1930s and ‘40s and, later, his 1950s drive-in restaurant on Soscol Avenue. Jimmy Vasser Chevrolet dealership is now in that location.

The Wright Spot photo prompted me to devote one of my biweekly essays to the popular eatery. The article got a lot of response from readers who were around that long ago and remember all of Napa’s popular drive-ins of from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Many of them reminisced about “cruisin’ the drive-ins,” which involved driving slowly by each of the hangouts to check out the action and, when one of them looked promising, to stop and socialize.

Drive-ins were a national phenomenon and a very important part of the social scene for young people. They were where you found your friends and acquaintances and something to do on a nice summer night. They were also an innovative way for businesses to get young Americans to spend money while never having to leave their beloved cars.

They employed young, pretty women as “car hops” to serve their car-bound customers. Some of the more noted drive-ins had the young ladies on roller skates while serving customers. As a teenager, my wife, Eileen, worked at a Mel’s Drive-In in San Jose as a car hop and worked on skates. To my knowledge, none of the local businesses required the use of roller skates.

In my hometown of Napa, the first drive-in restaurant to offer “curb service” with car hops was the Knotty Pine, which opened about 1947, while I was a student at Napa High. It was on Jefferson, corner of George Street, across Jefferson from Napa High School, and owned and operated by Susie and Larry Antonini. Many of my female schoolmates worked at the Knotty Pine. It was a very popular hangout and a prominent stop for the cruisers.

In 1952, my good friend and contemporary George Altamura purchased the Knotty Pine. Later, Altamura sold the business, and the building was moved to a site on Menlo Avenue and converted into a residence. Napan Jim Jordan then built and operated Chic’s Burgers on the former site of the Knotty Pine. Today, Hub Bicycles and a small strip mall occupy that corner.

Lillie’s Drive-In, owned and operated by Lillie and Joe Grant, was a checkpoint on the cruisin’ itinerary. It was at First Street and Silverado Trail on property owned by the Fornasier family. The building is still there but has a different use.

Kenny’s Drive-In, on the corner of Jefferson and H streets, across from what was then Victory Hospital, was another important stop for the cruisers. The building still stands and is now occupied by the Copy Corner.

Kenny’s was owned and operated by the always smiling and very busy Kenny Wagner. Over perhaps 25 years, Wagner owned and/or operated at least four eateries in Napa that I know of. The first was in the corner of the Uptown Theatre building on Third and Franklin and was called the Waffle Shop. His second was Kenny’s Creamery on First Street across from the Fox Theater, later home to the Curbside Cafe. Next was the above-mentioned Kenny’s Drive-In and, finally, Kenny’s Pancake House on Soscol near Imola, now the site of the South Napa Marketplace.

Cruisin’ was fun; however, in my day, when gas was perhaps 15 cents a gallon, it could be expensive!

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Contact Jim Ford at jwford571@gmail.com.