For heaps of nostalgia and home-cooked food, you can’t beat the 1950s style diner. Amy Hess of The Local Traveler visited two classics in the world of burgers, shake,s and fun: The Parkette Drive-In, located on East New Circle Road in Lexington, and The Diner in Sevierville, Tenn.
For more than 60 years, Parkette has been a favorite for hand-dipped fried chicken and double decker Poor Boys. The Diner in Sevierville has everything from classic cars and poodle skirts to all-day breakfast and handspun shakes.
In Lexington, Joe Smiley opened the Parkette in 1951, and the drive-in soon became famous for its double-patty Poor Boy burger and fun, car hop atmosphere. When it closed in 2007, it was soon reopened by brothers Jeff and Randy Kaplan. The brothers invested in a major remodeling.
“We gutted everything down to the studs, rebuilt it,” said Jeff Kaplan.
The work was so extensive that it turned into an eight-month project. “With any older building, you open up one thing, and five other things need to be done now. So that’s ultimately what happened,” he said. “It was a labor of love, though.”
The ’50s diner concept was so successful that the Parkette needed more seating. “People were being turned away every day. We couldn’t accommodate,” he said. That’s when the two came up with an addition on the back of the diner dubbed the Parkette Dine In Garage. Featuring two garage doors, the area is decorated with vintage service station signs, hubcaps, and other memorabilia.
“The idea behind this is that in the summer months you open up the doors and it’s like sitting on the patio,” he said. “In the winter months like now, we close the doors; the heat’s on.”
Randy Kaplan said the restaurant buys from local vendors and keeps its burgers fresh. “We get deliveries six day a week.” Randy said. The Poor Boy is authentically the original, complete with the original sauce.
The Parkette is also known for its fried chicken. “And our fried chicken, the integrity of our fried chicken it’s made the exact same way. We still use lard,” he said. Two fryers and the lard are designated just for chicken. “The flavor is worth it,” he said. The chicken is coated in eggs, pepper, a dash of salt, and a pinch of seasoned salt. A 50-pound block of lard is put into the fryer, and then the magic happens. “This is the secret to the best chicken in the world,” said Randy. “It’s simple beauty. Again, Joe Smiley was a genius. He created this recipe more than 60 years ago. And we still use the same one today. A beautiful thing.”
The Parkette has won national attention. Fans of Parkette emailed Guy Fieri, host of TV show “Diners, Drive-ins & Dives,” and Fieri visited the restaurant in 2010. Its Hot Brown Burger was among the three finalists in a burger recipe challenge issued by Bobby Flay, and Randy Kaplan appeared on a 2013 episode of the Rachael Ray Show featuring the contest. Parkette also serves up desserts, including a confection of brownie, ice cream, and funnel cake fries known as the Parkette Colossal Car Crash.
Down in Sevierville, Tenn., Susan and Howard Kingsbury opened The Diner in 2003. Jukeboxes, black and white checkered floors, and poodle skirts give The Diner its retro atmosphere, but a philosophy of service underlies everything.
“We don’t think you can get away from your world view, and, so we live it,” said Howard. “That philosophy of serving others like we would want to be served ourselves, that’s what we try to do.”
The Diner has cruise-ins where auto aficionados show off vintage cars and pickup trucks. “Essentially once a month we have a deejay and cars cruise in,” he said. “It’s a nice break from the routine of a volume Saturday. …We’ve got cornhole games set up and we’ll spit some watermelon seeds, and pitch some pennies, those kinds of things.”
The standard burger here is a one-third pound patty of Angus beef. “We chargrill it–which is the healthiest way to do it and the best tasting way to do it,” he said. They also have a quarter-pound and half-pound burgers. “We’ll double any of those burgers if anyone wants two patties,” he said.
They also offer elk and buffalo burgers, which are lower in fat and cholesterol than beef.
“When they come here, what we say is they can indulge or they can eat healthy,” he said. They offer salads with a variety of vinaigrettes and baked beans and soup beans.
“The reason we (make from) scratch so many things is to get a natural, full taste and quality. Our soups here are scratch. We’ve never done a commercial soup here,” Howard said.
Desserts are all from scratch, and Susan is in charge of those. “My mother was quite the baker,” she said, and the banana pudding is hers, as well as the pecan pie—with a twist. “I put rum in mine,” she said.
Howard, like many of the locals, is a big fan of the peanut butter pie. “Our peanut butter pie is to die for,” he said. The most popular pie, Susan said, is the coconut cream pie. “It is homemade from a really old, old – I bet you that recipe is a hundred years old. We shred the coconut, and this is our top-selling pie,” she said.