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Old Drive-in to be replaced by Southeast Gateway


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A Longtime Survivor

Small drive-in on West Salem Avenue known for camaraderie and good food will close

By Mary Giunca


Ken's Drive-In on West Salem Avenue is a survivor of a once-bustling neighborhood where boys in convertibles used to cruise with girls in crinolines. Back then, area factories and businesses were filled with workers who enjoyed watching waitresses on skates deliver milkshakes and fries in the restaurant's parking lot.

But the bulldozer, which has taken the nearby Goody's Pharmaceuticals Inc. plant and other businesses in the area, will soon claim Ken's as part of the Southeast Gateway project. The project is intended to transform the area around the N.C. School of the Arts and Salem College into an urban village of shops, restaurants, offices and apartments.

Ken's Drive-In will close on Jan. 16.

"It's kind of hard when you've done this for so many years," said Jennie Thomas, the owner of the restaurant. "I love my customers. No matter how hard you work, it's not like work."

Mary Morrison, the restaurant's only waitress, and Thomas serve up breakfast and lunch five days a week to working folk who cherish the battered red stools patched with duct tape the way someone might cherish a comfy recliner.

Thomas and her father, Grady Watson, bought the restaurant in 1982. Watson was a retired truck driver who was looking for something to do. Thomas said that her father turned over the restaurant to her in 1990.

The G&M posted on the building stands for Grady and Mabel, Thomas' father and stepmother, who ran a game room in the 1980s in a nearby building, which has been torn down, Thomas said.

Thomas has known for about 18 months that the restaurant would have to close. The equipment is too old to be salvaged, and starting a restaurant from scratch is expensive, so she said she may return to her former career selling real estate.

Cecil Rose said that he has been coming to the restaurant since 1952 and remembers it in its heyday as a cruising spot.

"It was wild; women and everything," he said.

These days, the restaurant's reputation rests on being the sort of place where working folks can get a square meal and share a good-natured joke with the staff.

Eugene Kirby, who works for the city, said that he's been coming to Ken's Drive-In for 15 years.

The mild barbecue is part of the restaurant's lure, but the bologna sandwich isn't bad either, he said. Most of all, he said, he likes the company.

"You come in and they know you and they know exactly what you want and how you want it," he said.

Darrell Tullock said that the bacon cheeseburger is his favorite.

"It's cooked the old-fashioned way - on the grill, the buns are toasted," he said. "You go to McDonald's, you get a cold bun and a cold piece of meat."

He said that even when he packs his lunch, he comes into Ken's for an iced tea and to have one of the women heat up his lunch. Few other restaurants would do such a thing, he said.

Since the news of the restaurant's closing has gotten out, customers have been asking Thomas for coffee cups, cooking utensils and even barstools.

"To some people, this is a historical site," Thomas said. "This holds childhood memories and that's hard to let go."

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It's sad to see places like this go. This is right at downtown, where they are building the state's largest traffic circle, the second traffic circle in lower-downtown. Salem Gateway will be a high density, mixed-use hot spot for college students and local residents, with retail, office, residential and park space, with a waterway along the strollway and a historic steel railroad bridge (converted for pedestrian use) crossing it.

If you like these places and would like to experience one on a visit:

Other Winston-Salem 1950's attractions that are worth visiting are Kermits Hotdog House, a 1950's drive-in restaurant near Waughtown, and the Belair Drive-in Movie Theatre, one of the last historic drive-in movie theatres in the country.

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There is one drive-in movie theatre on the far northeastern edge of Winston-Salem. It's called the BelAir Drive-In and has been in business since 1955. I remember seeing it once on my way to Kernersville. There's an odd neighborhood radio station in Kernersville I wanted to check out, and on the way there, I noticed a large number of cars going into this odd place that turned out to be a drive-in movie theatre. :lol:

I'll see if I can find it again and photograph it for the forums on my next trip to Winston-Salem. I wouldn't mind going there to see a movie, just to see what it's like. Mount Airy and Salisbury also have drive-in movie theatres. Salisbury isn't that far away from Charlotte if you wanted to see a movie in your car.

I know all about South 21! The location at South Blvd. was built in 1955 and the Independence location was built in 1959. There's also a "South 21 Junior" location on North Tryon near UNCC at the 29/49 split. It's an eat-in restaurant though. I think it's seperate from the drive-ins (different ownership?). They have plans to expand South 21 Junior around the Charlotte area very soon! Nothing beats the Independence location! I like driving past the skyline on 74 and taking the long way, past the Westin back to I-77. I visit them everytime I'm in Charlotte! They do have the best onion rings, and I've tried onion rings in many different restaurants. I brought a side order of onion rings from South 21 to "The Movies at Birkdale Village" on my last trip to Charlotte. :P Their chicken strips and milk shakes are also excellent! The only place that can make a good milk shake.

If you visit the drive-in movie theatre in Winston-Salem, be sure to try Kermits Hotdog House. You order from your car and the bring it out to you, just like South 21. They have the best hotdogs I've ever had. If you like cheese, be sure to say what kind of cheese though. They have several different types of cheese. :D

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Sounds like it was a neat old place.

FWIW, here's a page with some photos of the Blue Moon Drive-In Theater in the tiny town of Gu-Win, Alabama, about 60 miles or so north of Tuscaloosa:


Here's a photo of the old "Smack Drive In" restaurant in Tuscaloosa, which my parents used to go to, but was gone before my time:


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It's sad to see the old drive-ins go.

There's only 2 drive-in restaurants that I know of in Michigan. I have seen them many places out west. Two summers ago I saw some brand new drive-in restaurants. It's a chain....although I cannot remember the name. It's certainly not something I'm familiar with.

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