Since the opening of the Walmart several years ago in Unicoi, this small town has added some restaurants to its borders, expanding dining opportunities for both locals and visitors.
Alongside newer eating establishments, however, Unicoi can boast one restaurant that stretches back for 45 years. Clarence’s Drive-In, which was established in 1969, is still going strong almost half a century later. Generations of local families have eaten at this restaurant, which has essentially become a landmark location in this small town. Growing up, I can remember many enjoyable meals over the years with my grandparents, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles at this local eatery.
The roots of Clarence’s Drive-In extend back to a simpler era of curbside service and tasty treats, including burgers and hot dogs as well as ice cream sundaes and milkshakes. The eatery bears the name of Clarence Tapp, who owned and operated the restaurant for many years with his wife, Christine. These days, Clarence’s remains in the family and is owned and operated by Teresa and Jerry Collins. Teresa is the niece of the man who gave his name to the restaurant.
I paid my most recent visit on a Friday evening. Accompanied by a friend, we were on a classic comfort food quest and hoped Clarence’s Drive-In might just provide exactly what we craved.
The restaurant offers several dining rooms for customers, all furnished with comfortable booths and tables. The front dining room featured light wood paneling. The chairs and benches with the tables and booths are painted blue. The floors feature a blue and white pattern of tiles. Reproductions of vintage advertisement signs add to the nostalgic and casual atmosphere. Customers can also find a dinette stool at the classic diner counter located near Clarence’s drive-in window at the front of the restaurant.
The eatery offers breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. We focused on the dinner menu during our visit, paying particular attention to such items as the half-pound Deluxe Hamburger, Country-fried Steak with Gravy, Country Ham, Chicken Livers and a Roast Beef and Gravy meal served open-face over white bread and mashed potatoes. Fridays also offer a Whitefish Fish Fry. Clarence’s also offers some solid sandwiches, including Shaved Ham Sandwich, Club Sandwich, BLT, Reuben on Rye and a Catfish Sandwich.
My friend considered the Hamburger Steak and Gravy before ordering the Pan-fried Chicken Breasts. I considered the special of fried Alaskan Whitefish filets before I chose to try the Philly Steak Sandwich. I paired my sandwich with a large order of Onion Rings, although I was tempted by some other sides, including Fried Okra, Sweet Potato Fries and Pinto Beans. My dining partner added Mashed Potatoes and Gravy to his chicken dinner.
We both got small dinner salads with our meals, which were served ahead of the main course. The salads consisted of iceberg lettuce, white onion slices, tomatoes, purple cabbage and shredded carrots, served with dressing on the side and packages of crackers.
Our meals arrived promptly. My dining companion enjoyed the two large bone-in chicken breasts, which were fried to a golden crisp. One of the chicken breasts had been fried slightly too long on one side, and the breading on both pieces lacked any notable seasoning. Still, for the most part, the coating was hot and crispy, beautifully trapping in the moisture and flavor of the chicken.
I enjoyed the Philly Steak Sandwich, which was served on a split hoagie roll piled high with grilled steak, mozzarella cheese and grilled green bell peppers, onions and fried banana peppers. This hearty sandwich, paired with an ample amount of crispy, golden-fried onion rings, really hit the spot on a blustery, rainy evening.
Try to save some room to enjoy one of the sweet treats offered at this classic drive-in restaurant. Such desserts range from milkshakes and ice cream sundaes to homemade cakes, pies and a really delectable Hot Fudge Cake.
On this visit, I looked over the listing of shakes, which are made from whole milk, ice cream and an array of flavors, including classic Chocolate, Vanilla and Strawberry, as well as Pineapple, Blueberry and Caramel. I’ve enjoyed the Peanut Butter Shake for years, but on this visit I wanted to try something new. I considered the Oreos Shake and the Banana Split Shake before I decided on the Black Forest Shake, which combines rich chocolate with diced sweet, tart cherries blended right into the shake.
Clarence’s Drive-In also serves breakfast, which can be ordered at any hour of the day. Whether your tastes run to French toast and omelets to country ham and eggs or biscuits and gravy, the diverse breakfast menu offers something for everyone.
Here’s wishing the folks at Clarence’s another successful 45 years! If you go, don’t leave without trying one of the shakes. Those are definitely recommended.
AT A GLANCE: Clarence’s Drive-In, 4021 Unicoi Drive, Unicoi. 743-7200. Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m.-9 p.m.; and Sunday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Menu items $13.69 and under. Credit cards accepted. Carryout available.