The first time I discovered the Circus Drive-In was during one of my many road trips to the southern shores of New Jersey to hang out with my then best friend, who apparently still makes appearances in my stories seven years after his death. Anyway, I was cruising down Route 35 when I spotted the unmistakable red and white stripes, a giant grinning clown holding up the letters that spell out the name of this unique food joint. Then I saw all of the cars in the parking lot and knew I had to spend a few minutes checking them out. For whatever reason, it never occurred to me that this was an annual event and so I appreciated the experience for what it was in that moment.
Several years later, I find myself relaying this story to my husband with excitement as I mention how we have to take a trip to visit the Circus Drive-In, so that he could see the circus clad eatery for himself. While searching for car cruises, I discovered that they had one a month from May through August and we had planned to attend back in July, but the weather had been unpleasant and we decided against it. The date had originally been set for the 13th, and just as we were getting ready to leave, my husband called to ensure it was still happening since there had been harsh storms earlier in the day. It seemed the event had been rescheduled once again for the following Tuesday, though we agreed no matter what we were going to take the drive to at least eat there and snap some photos.
As it turns out, the evening was quite beautiful with clear skies and comfortable temperatures, the sun descending towards the horizon as we crossed the parking lot and made our way inside the restaurant. Opened in 1954, the Circus Drive-In is family a family owned business in Wall, New Jersey that provides nostalgic car hop-service and a dining experience which puts you under the big top in a literal sense. The structure is circular and as mentioned above, covered in a canopy of stripes that are topped with metal cut-outs of clowns and a huge sign that says “CIRCUS”. Seating outside can either be in your own vehicle or at picnic tables which also happen to be in wooden frame grove that is draped in more red and white stripes. Continuing this theme to the inside, there are tables covered in checkered cloths and wooden benches in lieu of booths that follow the curve of the building, while tall high-backed stools are lined up at the tiled counter and more tables are fitted with retro style chairs to accomodate diners as needed.
The service was as good as it could be with nearly every space inside and out occupied by hungry people, but I do appreciate when they are polite. Should note here that even before we sat down there was a gentleman who complimented my outfit, which was nice considering he sat with four friends who made their staring very obvious. Despite being aware of my appearance I still carry myself with confidence since dressing up is not an every day thing and I like to make the effort for certain occasions as has been a tradition for longer than I care to recount. There were stares I received in the parking lot, and I am pretty sure the people who sat next to us were constantly glancing in our direction, which I may have loudly mentioned to my husband to successfully get them to stop. It should not have to come to such a point, as neither of us generally care what people wear or look like – there are better ways to spend our time and much more interesting things that I want to burn in my memory than what some stranger had on their body.
Unfortunately the food did not impress either of us – it was tasty and all, but my husband is a cook who has worked in enough high end restaurants to know the difference between fresh and frozen. The quality failed to justified the price, though it was really more about the experience than anything else. We were also there for the cars, which had been coming in to fill the parking lot while we ate, giving everyone a good show and something to talk about to take their mind off waiting for their orders.
What a show it was, where sleek muscle cars sat next to hot rods, polished chrome and smooth paint jobs gleaming in the slowly dwindling sunlight. Do I have the ability to point out makes and models by sight, rattling off numbers about horsepower and torque and all that other stuff? No, but that does not detract from appreciating their aesthetics and the fact they exist in such great condition when others have been claimed by age and rust. It is difficult to pick a favorite, though the cherry red Nova brought smile to my face, the 50’s Impala was a prime example of how beautiful the lines of car can be, and plenty of vehicles had tags or stickers indicating their owners belonged to local car clubs. Even though there were plenty of other people milling around, I managed to get a decent amount of photos, which I feel were naturally enhanced by the setting sun. The first car that had caught my eye when we were making our way up to the parking lot had a swan on the hood, and later on I learned it was a Packard, which is far more luxurious in person than crammed onto a screen, as it makes an appearance in a few episodes of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
In all we spent about two hours there and headed back just as dusk approached, the moon full and glowing slightly orange-red. Stopped at a custard stand for desert, though I only had a few bites of the mango water ice and stored the rest in the freezer for later. While it may have taken a while for the opportunity to visit the Circus Drive-In to arrive, I also feel it was well worth the wait and could not have asked for a better evening.