I'd go to Sonic once a week. This was in North Carolina, in college. Friends and I would cruise off-campus between classes, usually on a Tuesday or Thursday, and sit at one of the small metal tables bolted to the ground in the middle of the drive-in. We'd order a No. 1 or No. 2 combo, depending on our mood, and slurp down vanilla Cokes while discussing our incendiary contempt for Duke basketball.
That might explain why, today, driving up 41 to the burger chain's Bradenton location isn't just a jaunt northward, it's a nostalgia trip that takes me back a decade and a half. I haven't eaten at a Sonic in probably a decade. Not for any particular reason; the fast food restaurant just dropped off my radar. And then the Bradenton location closed in 2010, leaving me cut off from any opportunity to visit.
But after the property cycled through a pair of new incarnations, first Sax then Sara Soda, it went back to what it should have stayed lo those many years: a Sonic. After all, the building looks almost exactly the same as it did before. The central kitchen is still ringed by parking spaces decked out with bright menus and red buttons that you mash before shouting your order.
But there is an upgrade or two. I don't remember any ciabatta on the old menu and I don't think Asiago cheese made an appearance, although I could be wrong. One of the main attractions of the spot used to be that it was one of the few places you could order a flavored soda. You can still do that today, although the novelty has worn off a bit now that you can get get practically any beverage combination you like at any number of spots. Tangerine maple Mountain Dew? I'm sure it exists.
The ordering technology has also seen an upgrade. I used to have to scream into the old squawk boxes. Today the audio sounds crystal clear. I can swipe my debit card to pay. A nice touch.
My wife, Rachel, and I order and wait. The parking spots are full today. It's cold out, so most folks are eating in their cars. Waitresses bearing trays whiz here and there on roller skates. Eventually, one comes to us. Rachel chows down on the bacon cheeseburger "toaster" ($7.39), which features surprisingly crisp slabs of bacon along with an onion ring that suffers from the problem that plagues all onion rings: The onion won't stay put. Instead, it slithers out of its breading and winds up discarded on the foil package in which Rachel's sandwich arrived. My fried chicken sandwich ($6.69) comes on the aforementioned ciabatta. It's fine, a slim rectangle of crispy white meat with mayo and veggies. The tots rule; the fries are all right.
We repair to the car for dessert, a "waffleberry brownie Master Blast" ($3.49). I thought that perhaps Sonic had discovered a new variety of plant life and dubbed it the "waffleberry," but in fact it's just strawberry soft serve dotted with waffle cone and brownie bits. Definitely the highlight of our visit.
Will I be back? Hmmm... These days, if I'm in the mood for a burger, why wouldn't I go to Five Guys? Or, for that matter, Shakespeare's? As we leave, I wonder if Sonic used to be better or if my memories of it are just too closely knotted to other formative experiences for me to make a rational judgement. Nostalgia's tricky like that.
Sonic is located at 6008 14th St. W., Bradenton. It is open 6 a.m.-midnight daily. Call 752-5770 or visit sonicdrivein.com for more info.