Restaurant News & Reviews

Renovation recapturing nostalgia

The venerable Parkette Drive In is undergoing an extensive renovation, and the new owners are uncovering some unusual artifacts.

As they took walls down to the studs, out came a 3-cent stamp; empty Pall Mall, Winston and Philip Morris cigarette packs; and Falls City and Wiedemann beer cans from the pre-pull-tab era.

"We figure if the guy was 21 when he drank this, he now is 77," said co-owner Randy Kaplan.

Yes, the Parkette has been around a long time.

A permit was issued to founder Joe Smiley in June 1952 to build the restaurant on what was then called the Belt Line Highway (now New Circle Road) near Liberty Road.

There also was a second Parkette for a time, on Georgetown Road.

Belt Line Highway was a dirt road when the first Parkette opened, and the restaurant was out in the country.

Joe Isaac, who opened Burger Shakes a ways down the road a few years later, said Smiley once told him he could tell a customer was coming by the cloud of dust from the road.

Smiley also said that city officials claimed they had issued the building permit by mistake, and tried to close the place down.

But by then, the Parkette was the place to be — police had to be called to unsnarl traffic on Saturday nights.

Randy Kaplan and his brother Jeff would be happy to see a return to those times when the restaurant reopens, possibly by the end of the year.

The Kaplans were born in Philadelphia and grew up in Miami before finding their way to Lexington.

Jeff, 49, owns half a dozen Subway franchises. Randy, 46, is a former Lexington police officer.

After months of negotiations, they purchased the business in July from a group of well-known investors that included Alan Stein, the president and chief executive officer of the Lexington Legends.

The partners bought the restaurant in 2003 after it abruptly closed. They said at the time that they were motivated by the desire to keep a landmark alive. But they closed it again late last year for renovations that never took place.

The Kaplans now are in the midst of an extreme makeover that they say will make the old restaurant a showplace of 1950s style.

"We are trying to preserve a part of Lexington history," Jeff Kaplan said.

They are acting as their own general contractors, and they are doing a lot of the hot, heavy work themselves.

There will be new walls, new floors, new roof, new wiring and plumbing, new air conditioning.

For a while, the sign said the restaurant would reopen in the spring. Now it says fall. This week, the brothers said December is a good bet.

Jeff Kaplan said it will be worth waiting for, and he talked excitedly about "the beauty of what we're trying to accomplish."

The exterior of the building will be wrapped in quilted stainless steel of the type found on diners of the era.

The interior will be have vinyl-covered booths next to wall-size period photographs. There will be a jukebox, video games, pinball machines, and Parkette souvenirs.

A covered deck and patio will be added to the back of the building. The idea is for people to be able to sit there and see the many antique and hobby cars and motorcycles that have frequented the restaurant, Jeff Kaplan said.

The sign with the stylized carhop will get new lights and neon.

The drive-in area also is being refurbished, and there will be a high-tech twist: When a carhop brings the food to your car and you pay with a credit card, it can just be swiped on a hand-held device that communicates with the cash register.

The menu will be much the same, including the Poor Boy double-decker hamburgers and hand-dipped and hand-breaded fried chicken.

But there will be an important difference, Jeff Kaplan said: The food will be of a higher quality than what has been served in recent years.

"It's going to taste like it did when Joe Smiley opened this place," he said.

And the brothers will add a menu item: Chicago-style hot dog made of Vienna beef.

They had been thinking of opening a hot dog place when Jeff drove by the Parkette and noticed it was closed.

"We thought this was meant to be," Randy Kaplan said. "We can save some history. It's been in town 56 years, and we didn't want to see it go away."

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