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Jon D. Bowman photo
Drive on in
Na-Bers Drive-In is located at 1245 Main Street in Bryson City, N.C.
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Jon D. Bowman photo
Shake it up
Car hop Dixie Hughes prepares another soft-serve classic at Na-ber’s. Jon D. Bowman photos
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Jon D. Bowman photo
Get it your way
“The works” at Na-ber’s means slaw, ketchup, tomato and a pickle, but grill cook James Howard fixes burgers any way you want.
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Jon D. Bowman photo
In the words of one customer from Jacksonville, Fla., who has been stopping by the place for the last 30 years for a cheeseburger and shake and continues to do so every time she’s in the vicinity: “It’s historic.”
Homemade barbecue, peanut butter milkshakes, and cherry-lemon Mountain Dew are only part of what makes Bryson City’s vintage drive-in restaurant a local favorite.
Unless you know where you’re going, you could easily miss Na-ber’s Drive-In as you head out of Bryson City on U.S.19 toward Cherokee in the southwestern corner of North Carolina. But folks in Swain County—and many outside the county—recognize this place as an institution.
Tucked between the road and the Tuckaseegee River, Na-bers is a trip back into the past. Its menu of chili dogs, burgers, barbecue, and fries has changed little since it was first established in the late 1940s. Cars drive in and park at the curb. Customers press a button and order their favorites over the speaker. Curb runners bring the food out on trays to hook over the car window. Waitresses smile and chat with regulars they see on a weekly or even daily basis for take-out or booth service.
Na-ber’s began when the town’s first drive-in opened near the Governor’s Island Bridge, just down the road from its present location. According to Ronnie Henderson, who has owned it for the last decade, the restaurant got its name (originally spelled Neighbors) because the owner had a habit of saying “Hello, neighbor!” to anyone who drove in. Back then, Henderson says, it was about the only place in town to eat. After a grease fire destroyed the building, it was rebuilt in its present location in 1965, with the same name, but a different spelling. Although the restaurant has changed hands a few times since then, owners seemed to know they had a good thing going with the original menu.
“We still sell more hot dogs than anyone in town,” says Henderson. “Our menu staples are cheeseburgers, hamburgers, hot dogs and barbecue. We’ve tried other things over the years—nachos, pizza, sizzlers. None of them worked.”
The menu doesn’t say so, but Na-ber’s smokes, cooks, and chops its own barbecue, and makes its own chili from scratch, just as it has always done. The restaurant goes through 50 pounds of cabbage every two to three days making its own cole slaw, and the burger patties are hand-formed from fresh beef that Henderson buys himself. If you’re from out of town, take note: “the works” means something different here. Order a burger all the way at Na-ber’s and you’ll get slaw, ketchup, tomato and a pickle.
“That’s the way we do it here, and that’s the way it was done at the bridge,” says Henderson.
The way it’s done seems to be just fine with folks from Bryson City and Cherokee. Retired Swain County school teacher Sue Schneider sighs when she thinks of her Na-ber’s favorites.
“The peanut butter milkshakes are rich and creamy and just like a taste of summer,” she says. “They remind me of my childhood—peanut butter sandwiches, and homemade ice cream all in one. The big, fat french fries are hot and salty and delicious.”
Loretta Davis of Cherokee brings her young family in for lunch.
“We come here once a week or every other,” she says, as three boys in the backseat eye the onion rings.
Charissa Ashe, who works at Smoky Mountain Automotive down the road, prefers the cheeseburgers all the way, and the minced barbecue sandwiches. “I love it. I’d eat there every day of the week if I could.”
Henderson admits the menu is not the most health-conscious. Still, he says, “We have customers who eat here every day. They press the button and simply say, ‘The usual,’ and we know exactly what they want.”
Many of them ask for a cherry-lemon Mountain Dew, another specialty at Na-bers.
“We do custom drinks if we can and if we have time,” Henderson adds. “We even have customers who request a dill pickle milkshake—and we make it for them if we’re not too busy. It’s not a bad flavor, actually,” he says. Milkshakes are made with soft-serve ice cream, or hard ice cream for a dollar extra.
The restaurant is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Breakfast is served all day, but things don’t really start to heat up until 11 a.m.
“The cook staff does a lot of prep work in the morning, getting ready for lunch, which is our busiest time,” says Henderson. While some might lump Na-ber’s into the fast food category, the restaurant does not cook food ahead, and some orders take a little time. If the cook staff is running on schedule, a customer might wait 10 minutes after placing an order.
On fall and winter evenings, after Swain County High School football and basketball games, cars overflow onto the grass by the river, and customers line up out the door.
“We’re no longer the only place to eat in town, but we still get our share of the business,” says Henderson. Not surprising, when a barbecue plate costs just $5.95, and a hot dog all the way is $1.55.
Still, there seems to be more to Na-ber’s than the sum of its excellent parts—tasty food, good value, and down-home charm. In the words of one customer from Jacksonville, Fla., who has been stopping by the place for the last 30 years for a cheeseburger and shake and continues to do so every time she’s in the vicinity: “It’s historic.”
If you're going
Na-Bers Drive-In is located at 1245 Main Street in Bryson City, N.C. Open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Cash payment only; ATM is on site. Call 828-488-2877 for more information.