Updated: Sep 12, 2019
Every ‘50s fantasy includes checkerboard floors, vinyl seats and a jukebox ready to play a couple classics. A local time capsule has all of this, plus food to boot.
The Parkette Drive-In has been a staple of Lexington, Kentucky, since 1951, when Joe Smiley first opened shop. According to the restaurant’s website, the West Virginian saw old Lexington’s open land as a prime location for a drive-in. The Parkette would become one of the first major businesses on that side of Lexington. With his signature “Poor Boy” double-decker hamburgers, Smiley was well on his way to creating a long-lasting business.
And this still holds true more than half a century later. The Parkette is not just any old restaurant or a simple local favorite. It has become ingrained in the community and stands as a local landmark.
In fact, it’s nearly impossible to miss the business, thanks to its signature sign. The 30- to 40-foot red and green sign has been standing as a beacon on New Circle Road for nearly three generations. If the giant announcement of chicken, shrimp and fish boxes doesn’t beckon all passersby to stop in for a bite to eat, then the light-up car driving toward the carhop with outstretched food will. According to the website, the sign is worth nearly 10 times as much as its original cost of $10,000 and costs about $1,000 a year to maintain. But that seems like a small price to pay to uphold such a legacy.
And upholding the legacy is exactly what co-owners Jeff and Randy Kaplan planned to do when they bought the business in 2008 after it had been closed the previous year, according to the website. After working together for years in Jeff’s Subway franchises, the brothers decided to take on this new project for the sake of the Lexington community. The Kaplans are the fifth set of owners of the Parkette.
“I thought it would be a great experience to own and operate such a landmark,” Randy said. “We wanted to save it and restore it to a retro ‘50s decor at the same time.”
The Parkette remained closed for eight months while the brothers conducted massive renovation and restoration. Though they did not disclose how much this project cost, Randy hinted that the face-lift cost “a ton.” However, thanks to the brothers’ efforts, the Parkette opened back up as “clean, fresh and full-service” and has remained so since.
Customers who grew up using the original car port call boxes can still enjoy that relic while also reminiscing in the storefront when looking at the numerous dated black-and-white photographs covering the walls. A pinball machine, arcade game and a case full of old trinkets — like toy model cars and a Popeye lunch box — show just how dedicated the restaurant is to keep its original charm.
However, the add-ons the business has acquired don’t take away from its authenticity. Younger customers are now growing up with the Kaplans’ added deck and patio in the back of the building. This seating area is much larger with classic car memorabilia and multiple garage doors. Jeff said in a Herald-Leader interview that the idea behind this design was for customers to be able to see the antique cars and motorcycles that often come through.
The restaurant isn’t the only thing that went through a transformation; so did Randy. Unlike his brother, who has owned several Subway franchises for years, Randy had limited experience about this kind of business before diving in head-first.
“I knew a little about the food business prior. I know a lot now,” Randy said. “It was not easy to obtain the experience I have now, but I was willing to learn and grow me as well as the business.”
Though the Kaplan brothers brought change to the Parkette, some things remain the same, as they should. The menu has expanded since Smiley first created it, but the classics are all there. Smiley’s Poor Boy, fried chicken and chili cheese dog remain fan favorites, so much so that they’ve even brought local, national and international attention to the Parkette.
The Parkette has racked up its fair share of acknowledgments and recognitions over the years. Just a few months after the brothers reopened the restaurant in 2009, the City of Lexington proclaimed Aug. 10 as Parkette Day.
Randy said the most interesting thing about owning Parkette has been how invested the community is, as is evident in the city’s proclamation. He also said that many customers have expressed to him that they are “thrilled” that the Parkette was brought “back to glory.”
About a year after Parkette Day was declared, Guy Fieri from Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives featured the restaurant and its three signature dishes on the show. In December 2013, the Poor Boy burger was voted fifth in the show’s top 10 of all time. This was such a notable achievement that Guy Fieri’s face can be seen throughout the restaurant to mark the occasion.
Also in December 2013, the Parkette’s Hot Brown Burger appeared on the Rachael Ray Show. Randy traveled to New York to cook the burger for celebrity chefs Ray and Bobby Flay in front of a live audience.
The Parkette has also been featured on the Secrets of Bluegrass Chefs TV show and The Local Traveler, in which the latter won an Emmy for its segment on the Lexington restaurant. The Travel Channel’s Food Paradise has also filmed the Parkette, but that episode has yet to air
. Most recently, the Parkette has been filmed for a German “reality style” TV show called Job Swap. The premise of the show, as explained by Randy, is two employees from a classic diner in Germany switch restaurants with two Parkette employees for three days, in which their work and leisure activities were recorded.
Randy said the most rewarding part about owning the Parkette has been “saving a part of Lexington history as well as obtaining some celebrity status from all of the TV shows.”
Nearly all of these accolades can be found on the Parkette’s website or on their menus in store.
As far as future endeavors for the timeless restaurant, only time can tell. As Randy said, “The future is only as limited as the limits placed upon it.”
Story Written by Akhira Umar
Photos by Emily Wrenn