The Historic Steer-In was featured on the popular Food Network show Drive-ins, Diners and Dives in early March introducing the country to one of the east side’s most beloved drive-ins.
The site of 5130 E. Tenth Street, just east of Emerson Avenue, has been home to a drive-in restaurant going back to the early 1930s. History of the early years is spotty, but by 1935 a company named North and South Poles, Inc. sold frozen custard here and probably built this whimsical drive-in around that time.
Like many drive-ins and other roadside businesses, the vernacular structure mimics the product sold and is called mimetic or programmatic architecture. Playing on the frozen custard theme, the little stucco-clad stand has peaks suggesting snow and icicles. Note also the polar bear in front. Another similar drive-in called Pop Spencer’s North Pole, later shortened to the Pole, stood on North Illinois Street and later Lafayette Road and 16th Street, and I suspect this one might have been built by Spencer as well. By 1941 the name changed to Northway’s Drive-In. Owners Harrison R. “Ray” and Helen Northway offered sandwiches, fountain drinks, and ice cream. Since this was a seasonal business, the restaurant closed in the cold months but former customers recall that Christmas trees were sold in the parking lot in December. (Circa 1940s photograph courtesy of Ralph Schrum and NESCO’s History and Preservation Committee)
The Laughner family bought the property in the late 1950s. With a restaurant history dating to the 1888, Laughner’s Steer-In tapped into the booming drive-in business that reached its height of popularity in the ‘50s. They constructed this modern restaurant with indoor dining and also the east wing for to-your-car service by carhops. The Steer-In’s web site (http://www.steerin.net/), explains that “despite the family’s notable food-service expertise, the venture wasn’t especially successful, and they sold the business to Harold Phillips in 1964.”
The Steer-In’s web site tells the rest of the story: “Rechristened Harolds’s Steer-In, the restaurant became known for the Twin Steer burger. Curb service continued, and the Steer-In became a popular site for weekend cruising. In 1985 Harold expanded the restaurant to its present size. With the expansion he lost much of his parking and discontinued his curb service. Harold operated the restaurant for 37 years. In 2001 former employees were leasing and running the restaurant, and for some months in 2004 the restaurant closed down altogether. In 2007 Charlie and Barbara Kehrer leased the restaurant, with some coaxing from their son Casey. Being East siders all of their lives the Kehrer’s wanted to restore the restaurant to its better days and continue the tradition of the Steer-In being a family owned and operated business. An extensive facelift was given. In 2008 they purchased the restaurant from Harold and changed the name to the Historic Steer-In. The recipes for the coleslaw and coconut cream pie, from Harold are still being used. Casey now serves as General Manager.”
Laughner’s also had a popular cafeteria restaurant directly across 10th street from the Steer-In in the early 60’s. and I got my first “official” job there as a bus-boy. I mostly recall a gentleman named Lloyd Laughner as the hands-on manager of the cafeteria and the drive-in restaurant. The Laughner restaurants were in serious competition with another group called McLaughners here in Indy, creating confusion about who was who in the local market. McL seems to have won out.