Why Lexington’s Parkette Drive-In restaurant is closing after 70 years

·3 min read

One of Lexington’s oldest and most nostalgic restaurants has turned off the neon lights for good: Parkette Drive-In has closed, confirmed restaurant owner Randy Kaplan after a day of confusion. Kaplan has operated the restaurant in partnership with his brother Jeff since 2008.

“We’re devastated,” Kaplan said Wednesday, holding back tears as his daughter and other employees watched from the parking lot. “Parkette is a landmark, an icon in this community. Over the last 13 years, three months and 20 days it was my honor to be a part of that.”

The restaurant was known for its fried chicken and fish served in boxes, “Poor Boy” double-decker burgers made-to-order, chili dogs, onion rings and hand-spun milkshakes.

And for its distinctive neon sign standing tall over New Circle Road, red vinyl booths and vintage drive-in bays to order food.

Kaplan said that 2020, the year that COVID hit, had been financially good but that 2022 had not been, with cool weather and higher gas prices cutting into demand for al fresco dining.

Bryan Tipton, son-in-law of Parley Smiley, widow of Parkette founder Joe Smiley, said Wednesday that Kaplan had asked to end their lease early and the family agreed and decided to close the restaurant.

Tipton said that the restaurant’s 20 employees were told of the immediate closure on Tuesday night.

The Parkette’s sign has shined like a beacon on New Circle Road almost continuously since the drive-in opened in the late 1950s. Bryan Tipton, son-in-law of Parley Smiley, the widow of Joe Smiley, said that the family agreed to end the lease and decided to close it down because they did not see it as a viable business.
The Parkette’s sign has shined like a beacon on New Circle Road almost continuously since the drive-in opened in the late 1950s. Bryan Tipton, son-in-law of Parley Smiley, the widow of Joe Smiley, said that the family agreed to end the lease and decided to close it down because they did not see it as a viable business.
A staple of the Parkette, a Poor Boy double-decker burger sold on the last night the Lexington restaurant was open.
A staple of the Parkette, a Poor Boy double-decker burger sold on the last night the Lexington restaurant was open.

There was confusion on Tuesday afternoon when the Richmond Register posted a story about the closure; it was taken down after Kaplan refuted the story but the newspaper reposted it later that night.

“The bottom line is the Parkette is just not profitable any more,” Tipton said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s just not a viable business. Everyone loves Parkette, everyone has great memories of Parkette but times have changed. They don’t go, they just talk about how much they love it. And COVID did not help either. It hurt Parkette pretty bad too. They had a few years left on their lease, came to us about getting out and we honored that. We let them out of their lease and made the tough decision to close Parkette.”

A fried chicken one-half mixed box wass plenty for two people to share for lunch. It included a leg, a thigh and a breast, plus gravy, a roll, coleslaw and fries.
A fried chicken one-half mixed box wass plenty for two people to share for lunch. It included a leg, a thigh and a breast, plus gravy, a roll, coleslaw and fries.

Parkette history: Founder a Lexington restaurant pioneer

Tipton said that he hopes the late Joe Smiley will be recognized as the restaurant and business pioneer that he was. “They told him he was an idiot, that he wouldn’t sell 10 hamburgers on that dirt road ... he was just a legend in Lexington,” Tipton said.

It is unclear what will happen to the iconic sign, the contents of the restaurant, including vintage pinball machines and signs, or the property at 1230 E. New Circle Rd.

Smiley opened the drive-in in 1952 on what was then called the Belt Line, near Liberty Road, in an undeveloped part of Fayette County. The dirt road eventually became New Circle Road. Smiley said that city officials claimed they issued the building permit by mistake and tried to close the restaurant down.

Joe Smiley holds an early Parkette menu on March 15, 1992. He opened the legendary when New Circle was a dirt road.
Joe Smiley holds an early Parkette menu on March 15, 1992. He opened the legendary when New Circle was a dirt road.
The Parkette Drive-In on its last day open for business, Tuesday, June 28, 2022.
The Parkette Drive-In on its last day open for business, Tuesday, June 28, 2022.

But the public loved it and for decades it was the place to be, show off cars or just hang out. For a time, there was a second Parkette on Georgetown Road.

Parkette renovated, revived, reopened

Smiley died in 2001 and the restaurant was sold in 2003 to a group of investors that included Alan Stein, former president and CEO of the Lexington Legends.

In 2008, brothers Randy and Jeff Kaplan bought the restaurant and began renovating it. In 2013 they added a larger area for dining in.

But they kept the drive-in bays and the carhop sign, which was put in a few years after the restaurant opened.

Despite the COVID outbreak hurting many Kentucky restaurants, the retro restaurant with carhops said it did brisk business, taking advantage of its ability to serve while not having dine-in. They didn’t have to layoff any workers, waiters, cooks or staff at the time, Randy Kaplan said.

Owners Jeff Kaplan, left, and Randy Kaplan, right, in their Parkette’s Dine-In Garage located behind the restaurant, 1230 East New Circle Rd. in Lexington, Ky., Friday, August 9 2013. The dine-in garage has 90 seats in a retro-50’s look.
Owners Jeff Kaplan, left, and Randy Kaplan, right, in their Parkette’s Dine-In Garage located behind the restaurant, 1230 East New Circle Rd. in Lexington, Ky., Friday, August 9 2013. The dine-in garage has 90 seats in a retro-50’s look.
Lexington’s Parkette Drive-In, shown in 2011.
Lexington’s Parkette Drive-In, shown in 2011.