There was a time, a few months ago, when customers would crowd inside the air-locked vestibule of Irvington’s Historic Steer-In, puffer coat to puffer coat, and breathe in its lovely bacon perfume. Carafe-wielding servers plied the close tables and sagging booths, topping off coffee mugs and indulging patrons in small talk. “Have a seat anywhere you want,” they’d call out when someone new walked in, treating every last person like a regular, from the Midwestern road-trippers who heard about the squat, pool-bottom blue restaurant by way of Guy Fieri’s 2011 visit for Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives to Steer-In’s esteemed “Counter Guys,” a fraternity of local men of a certain age who take their seats around the central horseshoe-shaped counter every day to nurse their coffees and shoot the shit. Sometimes they do this twice a day.
But that was before. Along with many other restaurants in these pandemic times, Steer-In converted to a strict carryout-and-delivery model last month in order to stay in business. Customers could call in their orders: breaded tenderloins, Twin Steers, and BLTs for Grubhub and Uber Eats delivery or a socially distant curbside pickup.
On Thursday, owner Casey Kehrer will add another dining option: carhop service. He spray-painted lines and numbers on the restaurant’s blacktop parking lot at the corner of East 10th Street and Emerson Avenue and unearthed some old trays that they used when a local roller derby team did a few skates-on fundraisers a while back. He’ll have employees outside directing traffic into the 30 spots and making sure everyone stays inside their cars. Customers can park under the awning that juts out from the dining room like an airplane wing and place orders out their car window with one of those sweet Steer-In servers who will bring the food out when it’s ready.
The new option isn’t new at all, but rather a throwback to the landmark eatery’s original claim to fame: drive-in dining. According to Historic Indianapolis, the location has quite an al fresco backstory, dating back to the early 1930s, when a tiny stucco frozen custard stand stood on the same piece of real estate. A 1950s facelift introduced a Googie-esque facade, indoor seating, and to-your-(car) door food delivery a la Happy Days and American Graffiti. The Steer-In (which also provided the backdrop for a MasterCard commercial featuring Peyton Manning) might be onto something with its accidentally Americana setup. “I couldn’t talk any of my servers into wearing roller skates, though,” says Kehrer, who has customers that have been coming here their whole lives, couples who met here, Scecina Memorial High School alumni who never stopped hanging out here.
For Kehrer, introducing carhop service was almost a no-brainer. “I was noticing that people were getting the itch to park next to each other when they would come in to pick up their food,” he says. “They were already starting to do it organically, especially the Counter Guys. I could tell that they were going crazy—parking side by side in the lot and yelling to each other out their windows. So we wondered if this would be a good time to try this.” On Thursday, he’ll find out. The Steer-In servers will be there, ready for small talk, and the Counter Guys will reunite, if only at the required social distance. At a time like this, that might be as close as we can get to a return to normal. 5130 E. 10th St., 317-356-0996, stern.net