If you’ve lived in Boise long enough, you probably think you know the story of the iconic Westside Drive-in and its owner, Chef Lou Aaron.
The story you do know is that the North Boise drive-in has been around forever – it’s celebrating its 60th anniversary this week – and that Aaron gave up being a chef in fine dining establishments to run a drive-in. That story has been told by every media outlet in town and on network television.
The story few people do know is actually several stories. One is that the drive-in has become something of a haven for troubled souls. Another is that its owner has battled alcoholism, cancer and the loss of his home and come out on top. Yet another is the evolution of the man himself.
Aaron left his job at the now-defunct Murphy’s, a fine dining establishment on Broadway Avenue, for the Westside gig. He had previously been a chef at Top of the Hoff, a Hilton hotel, upscale restaurants in Texas and a country club in Aspen, Colo. John Denver was one of his customers there. Martina Navratilova was the tennis pro.
“I wanted to have my own restaurant,” he said of the switch from the upper crust to burger buns. “I was going to open a restaurant by Hawks Stadium but the deal fell through, and one day I was driving by Westside and saw a little for-sale sign. I grew up on 27th, just a few blocks away, so it interested me.”
He, his wife and her father bought the drive-in in 1994. By then Westside was a North Boise institution. A Westside Grocery store occupied roughly the same location early in the 20th Century. The drive-in opened in 1957.
Aaron and his wife, Renee, have been Westside’s sole owners since 2004. One of the changes under their tenure has been the addition of menu items seldom seen at drive-ins. You can get anything from a rack of barbecued ribs to a peanut ginger chicken salad at Westside.
Another change has been an emphasis on employing those down on their luck.
“We have 15 cooks here,11 cashiers and three dishwashers. We train the cooks in-house. Some of my best cooks used to be dishwashers. If they’re good at that, we move them up quickly. We hire a lot of people who are struggling. We have four women who were in prison, two people who were homeless and one refugee from Africa. We kind of look at this as a ministry.”
Aaron knows what it is to struggle.
“I was a drunk all through the 80s and up until 1993. I was gifted as a cook so I could get away with it. I’d come home drunk from Murphy’s and then drink at home. I was drinking a case of beer a day, vodka, Long Island Teas …
“On April 26, 1993, I came home from work and my wife asked me why we had so many beer cans in a cubby hole behind the refrigerator in the garage. I said it was because I was an alcoholic. I’d prayed for months that I’d stop, and that night I did. I just celebrated 24 years of sobriety.”
Alcoholism isn’t the only thing he’s had to battle. On October 28, 2015, he was diagnosed with an incurable type of lymphoma. Instead of chemotherapy, which was recommended, he studied alternatives and changed his diet, eliminating sugar, white flour and most dairy products and relying heavily on juices.
“My latest CT scan, in October, showed that my tumors had shrunk 25 percent in a year and my blood counts are almost perfect. I’ve lost weight and feel better than I ever have. My doctor laughs when I tell him I’ve mainly been drinking celery juice, carrot juice and Japanese green tea.”
On November 6, 1996 – he doesn’t forget the life-altering dates in his life – his family’s house burned down.
“We lost our house, our car, our pets … We lost everything. We found out what it was like to not have anything. But we were alive. We were okay.
“That’s when we started going back to church. We realized that the important things are our relationships with other human beings and with God. That spiritually changed our lives forever. It was six months of hell, but it was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
Now 55, he’s a deacon in his church and a different man from the one I interviewed in the same room of the Westside complex 24 years ago. The red hair is mostly gone; the beard is mostly gray. He seems less driven, more at peace.
“I’ve mellowed,” he said. “I used to get so mad about things. Now I realize that in the bigger picture those things don’t matter at all.”
He’s proud that Westside has been around for 60 years, and of what he’s done to make it unique in the drive-in world.
“We make almost everything from scratch. We roast our own meats, make our own stocks and sauces, and we don’t use anything pre-battered. It’s more work, but you can tell the difference.”
The most popular menu item – it is still a drive-in – is a bacon cheeseburger, closely followed by ice-cream potatoes. In addition more conventional fare, its offerings range from salads to focaccia sandwiches to prime rib.
A lot more.
The concept has been successful enough that in addition to the original Westside at 21st and State streets, the Aaronses’ son, Josh, is using it at the new Westside on ParkCenter Boulevard.
Looking back, Aaron says his decision to leave the world of haute cuisine for a drive-in was one of the best he ever made:
“Most of my employees weren’t even born when I started at Westside. I love it when people drive up and say their first job was here. Both of my kids grew up in the business, and there’s nothing like having your kids with you every day at work. It’s been a blast. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.