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Vic’s Drive-In on San Juan celebrates 50 years on June 28
A lot has changed, but a lot has remained the same at historic diner
When Vic’s Drive-In opened 50 years ago June 28, it resembled a drive-in more than it does now.
It was a smaller version of “American Graffiti’s” Mel’s, a mom-and-pop shop where you could pull up, place your order, and enjoy your meal in the comfort of your car — one of America’s favorite eating venues in the Eisenhower era.
There was just the kitchen then, and an order window. There was no indoor seating, just tables along the side and in back. Cars parked diagonally along Second Street then.
“Cars would be parked all the way up the street,” said Jeanne Sagel, daughter of Vic’s founders Vic and Margaret Reynolds.
And for good reason.
“Nobody could make a burger like my dad,” Sagel said. “He mixed his own relish. He built each deluxe burger layer by layer. He had the knack — he was a chef.”
You paid 35 cents for a regular burger, 40 cents for a cheeseburger, 50 cents for a regular deluxe burger and 60 cents for a cheeseburger deluxe. Fries cost a quarter. A milkshake would cost you 35 to 50 cents. You could also order Mr. Reynolds’ fresh homemade soup or Mrs. Reynolds’ homemade potato salad.
Vic’s evolved over the ensuing years. Ownership changed. An indoor dining area was built. Diagonal parking is gone. But the diner never lost its charm.
Instead of hearing “Blue Moon” by The Marcels or “Come Go With Me” by the Dell-Vikings over a car radio, you might hear laughter from the Rusty Zipper Club, which meets here three times a week. Some of its members have dined at Vic’s since they had darker hair and more spring in their step. During the school year, you’ll still hear the rush of students coming in for lunch. And the diner’s current owners still try to provide service that would make the late Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds’ mighty proud.
“Just pull up front and we’ll bring the food out to you,” owner Kevin Widmayer said. “We’re trying to maintain that ambience.”
On June 28, you can get the full Vic’s experience for free: To celebrate the diner’s 50th anniversary, Vic’s will be serving free burgers, chips and sodas.
“It’s our way of saying ‘thank you’ to all islanders,” said Widmayer, who with his wife Linda has owned and operated the landmark diner since Feb. 14, 2000.
Drive-in came at opportune time
Vic Reynolds was originally Victor John Vlahovich, who moved to the island in the 1930s and became a baker on Spring Street, not far from Memorial Park.
He met Margaret Guard at Friday Harbor Drug, where she worked. The Yugoslavian Catholic and the Protestant San Juan Valley farm girl fell in love, a union initially opposed by her father.
“He wasn’t a banker’s son, he wasn’t an islander,” Sagel said.
They married in 1937 and, partly to appease his father-in-law, the groom legally changed his name to Reynolds.
They started a restaurant but didn’t do well, their daughter said. Margaret worked off and on in the drug store, Vic worked at King’s Market and Roberts Hardware.
They became active in town; Vic played drums and Margaret played piano at community dances. Ultimately, father- and son-in-law patched up their relationship.
In 1958, with financial backing from his employers — the bank wouldn’t loan them the money — the Reynoldses founded the drive-in, next door to their Second Street home.
Their timing was perfect.
“In the 1950s, automobiles were becoming more available, and there was a lot of allure and ambience to the automobile,” Widmayer said. “As people began to spend more time in their automobiles, the drive-in became something the food industry thought it could capitalize on.”
In addition, “the streets rolled up at 7 p.m.,” Sagel recalled. Vic’s Drive-In became the island’s neighborhood hangout. A Friday Harbor Journal news story announcing the opening stated Vic’s would be open from noon “until late in the evening as long as business warrants.”
Vic’s couldn’t have been more mom and pop in those early days. The Reynoldses lived next door, where the Key Bank building is now. Dining at Vic’s was like dining with the family; Mrs. Reynolds was a Guard and her sister Ruth married into the Sundstrom family, so you could be eating burgers with a string of siblings and cousins.
In between the drive-in and the Masonic Hall — where the indoor dining area is now — was a garden where Vic Reynolds grew beautiful dahlias and vegetables, according to sister-in-law Lynette Guard.
Guard remembers loading her children into the car for Sunday drives that included a stop at Vic’s for burgers, tuna sandwiches and ice cream.
Over the years, each successive owner has strived to maintain that “gathering place” feel. The Widmayers have been known to call on older customers who haven’t been in for a while. One winter day, they took hot chili — without charge — to a customer they were worried about. It turned out she was unable to leave her home because of snow.
“If we haven’t heard from someone for a while, we’ll say, ‘How about if we take a burger, chocolate shake and some fries over there,’ ” Widmayer said.
Customers have been equally devoted. Hazel Lawson and her husband, Howard, dined at Vic’s daily for several years. Before he died, Howard told Hazel he wanted her to continue dining at Vic’s daily to ensure she had an adequate diet and social interaction. And so she did, often playing her harmonica for the Rusty Zipper Club and for customers on their birthdays.
Hazel Lawson was enjoying a meal at the restaurant when her time came in April 20, 2004. She died, of natural causes, in the restaurant she loved.