The Parkette's sign towers above many other structures on East New Circle Road. Erected in the late 1950s, it stood for a quintessentially American dining spot: the drive-in, a place where you could eat in your car, your real "home away from home." You could be alone or with family or friends, yet enveloped, just far enough from other diners while remaining part of a collective.
In 2008, the Kaplan brothers — two smart transplants who cared enough about their adopted city's unique character to rescue the closed Parkette — began restoring the place. The work has been successful — so much so that last year, it put our fair city on the Food Network's map when Guy Fieri featured it (and a few other local eateries) on his show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
On any given day, the parking lot is packed with trucks and compact cars, SUVs and hybrids. It is a democratic cross-section of drivers, one that seems to reflect everyone circa now.
What might be less obvious is that you also can eat indoors at the Parkette.
The interior is the perfect remake of its period, right down to the black-and-white checkered floor, the jukebox (with standards that are not blaring, thank you very much), and the Formica tabletops, red counter stools and ceiling fans.
All this background information should make it easy to guess what's on the menu, which is as much about the total experience as it is about the food itself: burgers and fries, hot dogs and fried chicken, shakes and malts. This is not the place for post-modern preferences or picky eaters. It's about fun food, white bread and atmosphere.
Like many diners and drive-ins, the Parkette offers a couple of signature items. Nothing should prevent you from ordering a hot dog, but the stars of the show are the "famous 'poor boy'" and the generous and insanely inexpensive fried chicken boxes.
The poor boy is a tall sandwich, hardly poor at all, with not one but two hamburger patties, a slice of American cheese, onions and tomato, iceberg lettuce, pickle, mustard and "Parkette sauce," which I was told is basically mayonnaise. For $4.29, it is served with a large side of fries. Yes, of course they are crinkle-cut.
If you still think that fried chicken should be prepared only in lard, you must try this version: It's crisp, piping hot and the kind of greasy that makes you lick your fingers. Two people could easily share the "one-half mixed box." It includes a leg, thigh and breast, white gravy, a hot roll, coleslaw and fries — for $6.99. (Other combinations range from $5.99 to $7.29.) Spend an extra couple of dollars on the sweet and crunchy onion rings. It's really not a retro meal without them.
"Milk shakes" are really soft-serve ice cream. Don't try to use a straw — it's futile. This is spoon food that, for 50 cents more, could easily become a full-on dessert with additions of cookies and candy.
Lexington has more than its share of chains that serve burgers and fried foods, but most are generic, standardized almost to the point of soullessness and, when you come right down to it, not much of a bargain.
At the Parkette, three people could overindulge for about $14 while patronizing a locally owned landmark. Plus, if you are of a certain age and/or attitude, you will find yourself singing along and bopping to songs like Party Lights and You'll Lose a Good Thing. Whatever would be wrong with that?
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.