Donut Drive-in Keeps Classics Alive on Route 66
- Favorite DonutSugar Jelly
- Signature DonutGlazed, chocolate long johns, the classics
- Favorite non-donut foodSt. Louis style pizza, Mexican
- Favorite thing about St. LouisAll of the friendly people
Walking into the six-decade-old Donut Drive-In on an unassuming stretch of the historic Route 66 in St. Louis, Missouri’s Carondelet neighborhood, you can tell that this is a place that has been kept around by folks who really care about it and the community. Originally opened in 1953, the tiny aged building comes across as well-loved rather than well-worn. Eating sugar-coated jelly donuts here as a boy is one of current owner Paul Schwartz’s fondest memories. When he and his brothers heard that the Drive-In was up for sale in 1996, the entire family pooled their resources in order to become a part of its history.
At a time when one of the most popular trends in new restaurants is to attempt to capture a certain old-world charm and authenticity, Donut Drive-In stands out as the real thing. Schwartz notes that the recipes used by his staff haven’t changed since he took over and that nothing here is automated. All donuts are rolled, cut, glazed, fried, and sprinkled by hand. In the years since he’s taken over, Schwartz feels that people are beginning to appreciate this style of craftsmanship more and more.
Not seeming to give much thought to websites such as Yelp and Urbanspoon, Schwartz seems more focused on the quality of the product and keeping longtime customers coming back.
In the years since Schwartz purchased the shop — even since he and his brothers were regular customers as boys — the neighborhood hasn’t changed all that much. Situated at the city’s southernmost edge, the area is quiet and predominantly residential — with many of the same churches that have been there as long as the donuts have. Just a few blocks down the street, St. Louisans can enjoy another local favorite sweet: Ted Drewes frozen custard.
Schwartz’s wife Kay, who manages the shop on a day to day basis, is an elusive character. Although she isn’t one for interviews, she arrives at work each day at three AM to oversee all aspects of donut production. Her devotion to the business is made obvious by the commitment of her fantastic staff. In an industry where people change jobs as often as they buy new work shoes, Donut Drive-In has only had to replace one employee in the past three years.
Aside from the obvious sights and smells (no matter what time of day you come in, something fresh is always being made here!), the most striking first impression is the midwestern friendliness of the employees. Over the course of several visits, I had the pleasure of meeting several longtime donut makers including Tainia, Petrit, and Justin, all of whom were kind, helpful and seemed to take a lot of pride in their jobs.
Longtime employee Justin, who greets customers by jokingly asking, “How many can I talk you into today?” brags about the long hours he works with a smile on his face, noting how great it feels to work for a business that values each of its employee’s contributions and skills. When asked which donut is his favorite, he crossed his hands pointing in either direction over the donut case. So far that day, he had eaten a total of six donuts, which did not seem at all unusual for him.
Like any historic donut shop, Donut Drive-In features a number of specialties which reflect the community that has supported it throughout the years. In addition to Budweiser beer, the Gateway Arch, and the Mississippi River, St. Louis is home to some of the most committed sports fans in the country. Depending on the season, the sprinkles that adorn Long Johns and cake donuts alike are either blue and yellow in support of St. Louis Blues hockey or red and white for Cardinals baseball.
Although crullers have been made popular throughout the country due to being marketed by larger chains in recent decades, they remain a particular favorite in cities such as St. Louis, which have had historically large populations of German immigrants. There are several styles of cruller; St. Louisans are partial to the “French-style”, a ring-shaped pastry made from choux pastry. Chewy, lighter and less sweet (although this problem can be remedied with vanilla or chocolate frosting), the “French-style” crullers at Donut Drive-In do not disappoint.
The good news is that you can’t go wrong here. Whether you are looking for a few donut holes to get you through the afternoon munchies, or an apple fritter big enough to give a backseat full of kids a sugar high that lasts through the end of the school day until bedtime, Donut Drive-In has you covered. Everything from the moist cake donuts (best with the fudgy chocolate frosting and sprinkles) to the fruit-filled fried pies with their crisp layer of glaze over an ever-so-tender crust are the best of its kind, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect example of a chocolate Long John anywhere in the country.
Unlike most donut shops which tend to close for the day by early afternoon, Donut Drive-In knows that true donut lovers’ cravings are not limited to breakfast hours. This is why they are open until 10pm on weeknights and all the way until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
With the adoring customers, loyal employees, and first-rate donuts you would think that Paul Schwartz would have a hard time coming up with his favorite part of the job. When prompted with the question, he replied without hesitation, “the joy of keeping it alive,” followed by a story about the iconic original Donut Drive-In sign. When Schwartz purchased the business, the original sign was in disrepair. One of his first acts as owner was to have it lovingly restored by a local expert. “Seeing that sign light up every day…it’s a thrill,” he says.