Can you judge a restaurant by its sign? I'm talking about those cool old neon signs that adorn South Sound drive-ins and diners -- those paeons to neon and incandescent bulbs.
"I think you can judge if they've taken care of the sign and if there's a certain pride in the sign, you can see that in the business," said neon artist Galen Turner, who teaches neon 101 at The Evergreen State College in Olympia.
With that in mind, here are my judgments of vintage signs and their restaurants.
Pick-Quick Drive In (4306 Pacific Highway E, Tacoma; 253-922-5599). You know that way your mouth feels alive and comforted when eating a classic Pick-Quick burger -- meat, cheese, lettuce, pickle relish, mustard, mayo and grilled onions, if you want 'em, on a soft-and-squishy bun -- that's the warm-all-over feeling I get looking at Pick-Quick's neon, a sign that tells the drive-in's story in a few simple, well-stacked words: better burgers, ice cream, hot dogs.
Flying Boots Cafe (614 S 38th St., Tacoma; 253-475-9628). Winged neon boots aren't the only animated feature at this Lincoln district icon. Karaoke is also a big draw at this former country and western haunt. Breakfast every day. Otherwise, the menu's mostly burgers, pressure-cooked chicken and joes, and spaghetti and joe's. I enjoyed a BLT and a cup of coffee while drooling over the table-top juke boxes (inoperable, but still totally cool).
Frisko Freeze (1201 Division Ave., Tacoma; 253-272-6843). If waiting 20 minutes for a $2 burger is your thing, you may be a Tacoman. I get the feeling that nostalgia drives the drive-in popularity more than anything. The burger that I ate yesterday kind of resemble the painted burger on Frisko Freeze's faded sign: frumpy. (Although to its credit, the leafy lettuce in the burger on the sign was better-looking shredded lettuce on my burger). Mayo on the burgers. Good shakes and fishwiches. Few amenities other than parking spaces.
Poodle Dog (1522 54th Ave. E, Fife 2530922-6161). In operation for nearly 50 decades in dog years, it's Fife's culinary landmark. This is where I ate my first meal as a Tacoma resident, and where I'm starting to appreciate cheddar cheese instead on the Bennies. (Trip to the wayback notes: I still insist that a blue-collar family restaurant's gravy should be either brown or white -- not orange, like the gravy that graced my pork roast in my first visit three years ago.) I like Poodle Dog for slices of pie, cups of coffee and BLTs at the counter. That's where you bump elbows with real people. Last time I ate at Poodle Dog, I asked the waitress for ketchup; the trucker to my right slid me his bottle. As for the adjacent Pup Room, the dark bar attracts its share or mutts.
Antique Sandwich (5102 N Pearl St., Ruston; 253-752-4069). Who says Alice doesn't live in Victorian wonderland anymore? That boho chick in the cafe/coffeehouse's '60s-era hand-painted sign -- dig the old SK exchange -- looks blissed out. Maybe from eating housemade granola with fresh berries and yogurt, or lemonade with Vashon Island honey, veggie lasagna or all those groovy desserts.