El Reno: Hamburger City
Established as Fort El Reno in 1874 as part of U.S. Army efforts to subdue the Cheyenne, El Reno (pop. 18,786) later saw duty as a POW camp during World War II, then earned a measure of fame as the site of a motel seen in the offbeat road movie Rain Man. (In the movie, the motel was in Amarillo, but the “real” one, called the Big Eight, sat along old Route 66 at the east edge of El Reno.)
For hungry road-trippers, especially those fond of all-American burger joints, El Reno offers an abundance of choices. Three great old places stand within a block of each other along old Route 66. The oldest, Robert’s Grill (300 S. Bickford Ave., 405/262-1262), has been cooking since 1926 and should be a national model for short-order cooking. A block to the west is Sid’s Diner (300 S. Choctaw St., 405/262-7757), which became insanely popular after it was featured on the TV show Man vs. Food. Finally, a block to the east is Johnnie’s Grill (301 S. Rock Island Ave., 405/262-4721, daily), with the biggest menu and most spacious dining room. All three El Reno burger joints are famous for putting fried onions in and on their burgers.
On the first weekend in May, El Reno gets together to cook up the “World’s Largest Fried Onion Hamburger,” a 750-pound behemoth that inspires an all-day festival.
Hydro: Lucille’s Roadhouse
There’s no clearer contrast between the charms of the old road and the anonymity of the Interstate than tiny Hydro, about midway between Oklahoma City and Clinton on the west bank of the Canadian River.
A wonderful length of old Route 66 runs along the north side of I-40 exit 89, right past the ancient service station and souvenir stand operated by Lucille Hamons from 1941 until her death in 2000. Though it’s just 50 yards from the fast lane of the freeway, visiting Lucille’s place to buy a soda or a postcard and have a quick hello with the energetic proprietor was a Route 66 rite of passage. Lucille’s inspired the creation of a replica roadhouse on the north side of I-40 in the next town to the west, Weatherford, called Lucille’s Roadhouse (580/772-8808).
West of Lucille’s, a surviving six-mile stretch of old Route 66 pavement follows the lay of the land up and down, offering a better sense of the landscape than does the faster but duller new road, which was completed in 1966.