BETHEL, Conn. -- Pull into the parking lot of the Sycamore and flash your lights. In a jiffy a carhop will be at your car window. Place your order, and a few minutes after that, out comes the carhop once again, this time toting a tray full of food to attach to the window. Turn up the radio and dine in style in the comfort of your front seat.
Welcome to one of the last genuine drive-in restaurants, where the service is swift and the cuisine is classic. Name your burger, and they make it here: with or without cheese, smothered with onions, stacked up double-decker style, plain or fancy. These are some swell hamburgers. They are not gourmet-thick or elegant. They are thin, lusciously greasy, and infused with the flavor of a grill that has been sizzling patties of ground steak for several decades.
If you ever go inside the Sycamore (there are booths and counter seats, too), you can watch the man at the grill make the burgers, and it is a real education in hamburgerology. When one is ordered, the chef grabs a big round gob of chopped meat and slams it down on the hot grill. He then immediately presses it down hard, flattening it into a vaguely round patty so thin at the outer edges that you can practically see through it. The center remains somewhat thicker, perhaps 1/4 inch, but not much more than that. The first side of this flattened patty cooks until it is crusty brown, meaning that the other side barely needs any time on the grill at all because it has virtually cooked through.
The result is a skinny hamburger with one soft, tender side and one wickedly crisp one: a tantalizing configuration, especially if you get two such patties on one bun, the layers of meat festooned with melted American cheese. The doubling-up provides a memorable textural variety as you sink your teeth into the hefty sandwich.
To go with your hamburger, you want French fries (which are better than the fairly ordinary onion rings) and a root beer. They actually make their own root beer at the Sycamore, and they serve it in big, chilled mugs that arrive at your car encased in a lovely sheen of frost. Depending on whether your serving comes from the top or bottom of the barrel, it can range from sugar-sweet to elegantly dry. Whatever the vintage, it is good root beer, and a perfect companion for a hamburger.
There are other things on the Sycamore menu. In fact, it was just recently expanded from a basic repertoire of hamburgers, hot dogs (good ones), chili and breakfast to include a variety of sandwiches and even salads. To be honest, we have never had a salad at the Sycamore, and we don't intend to. How could one possibly fork into a bowl of lettuce with a steering wheel in the way?
1 pound lean ground steak
butter and oil, for frying
6 slices American cheese
3 hamburger buns
9 pickle slices
3 thin slices of onion
3 slices of tomato
1/3 cup shredded lettuce
Separate the meat into 6 spheres. Each should be a little bigger than a golf ball.
In a large skillet or on a griddle, heat an equal amount of butter and oil over medium-hot heat. When butter is melted and sizzling vigorously, place the patties in the oil one by one, flattening each down hard with a spatula until it is no more than 1/4 inch thick in the center. Cook until the top begins to turn from pink to gray, then flip (taking care not to break the crisp edges of the patties) and drape each with a slice of cheese. Lower heat.
Prepare buns. Slather each with mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise, then arrange pickle, onion, tomato and lettuce.
When cheese on burgers begins to melt, place two patties on each prepared bun. Serve immediately.
The Sycamore, 282 Greenwood Ave., Bethel, Conn. 06801; (203) 748-2716.