Fast Food on Apache

The tasty side of midcentury automobile culture

From drive-ins to drive-thrus, fast food restaurants left their mark on the history of Tempe's Apache Boulevard.

Fast food restaurants emerged as a vital part of American auto culture, first as drive-in restaurants and later with drive-thru lanes. The term itself appeared in the dictionary for the first time in 1951, about the time that Apache Boulevard's first drive-in, an A&W Root Beer Stand, opened at 2057 E. Apache. (Later, it relocated to the 1205 East Apache.) A franchise that originated in California, A&W sold root beer and hamburgers to customers who parked their cars under an awning, receiving curbside service on trays. Drive-ins were becoming increasingly popular in the 1950s, and the number of A&W restaurants grew from 450 in 1950 to more than 2000. It would not be until the late 1960s that additional fast-food restaurants began to appear along Apache, as a veritable wave of franchises—McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell—opened.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the architecture of fast food chains would have been novel to most visitors who were experiencing mass-produced cuisine for the first time. McDonald's had Golden Arches; Burger King sandwiched its name between two buns; Taco Bell had its characteristic bells. The large neon signs and distinctive architecture of these restaurants added a unique flavor to the roadside architecture of Apache Boulevard.

Along with its neon lights, Taco Bell also brought distinctive wood, stucco, and brick Mission-style architecture to Apache Boulevard. Its unique building soon became easily recognizable with a clay-tile roof, arch-shaped entryways, and a large metal bell set in a cavity above the entrance. The restaurant was typically a small building with little indoor seating if there was any at all. A small kitchen, a window for ordering, and a few tables and chairs on the patio were all that were necessary to run a successful establishment.

Fast food joints such as these catered to travelers and locals alike well into the 1990s. These restaurants, including local chains, such as Pete's Fish & Chips, Filliberto's, and Mr. Hero, also served food to the construction workers building the freeway and Tempe's suburban neighborhoods, making Apache Boulevard's fast food culture a part of Tempe history.