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Our adventurous and discerning dining writers roam the New River-Greenbrier Valley for pizza burgers and English-toffee pudding. Then they traverse the Potomac Highlands for pasta and South American arepas.
Pizza Burgers in Beckley
Recipe books from the 1930s are locked tightly away inside the King Tut Drive-In on Eisenhower Avenue in Beckley, West Virginia. Kenneth McKay consulted them often when she ran Depression-era tea rooms in New York City and Cleveland.
With no seating inside and dining in cars only, King Tut offers a stark contrast to big-city tea rooms, but Kenneth’s grandson Dave McKay says there is a connection: his grandmother’s frugality.
“Those recipe books come from a time when everything was expensive and they measured out everything to the last grain of salt,” says Dave, who took over the drive-in when he retired from AT&T in 2004. His father, the late John McKay, had run it since 1955.
“One thing Dad learned was to use items in two or three ways. We make hamburgers fresh every morning and then use the leftovers for meatloaf.”
Frugality was the genesis of one of King Tut’s most popular sandwiches, the pizza burger, which makes use of leftover items normally used to top a pizza.
When I order one, server Rebecca Bradley gently warns that green olives are served on the burger, which suits my taste just fine.
“Dad introduced pizza to Beckley in the 1950s,” Dave tells us. “He had to give it away free as samples.”
Despite the name, the King Tut Drive-In has no connection to the famous Egyptian king. The Tutwilers, who ran the business in the 1940s and ’50s, simply shortened the family name, and John McKay, his son jokes, was “too lazy to rename it.”
One of John’s legacies on the menu is the Nightmare Sandwich: Polish sausage, mustard, onion, sauerkraut and American cheese. John handed out free Alka-Seltzer tablets when he sold the sandwich.
King Tut’s menu fits just about every taste, with Chip Chop Ham, a pot roast sandwich, a meatball hoagie, Swiss steak, fish, oysters, brown beans and green beans.
Beckley had three drive-in restaurants in the 1960s, and people would cruise among them. In order to differentiate his business, John Mc- Kay abandoned beer sales to make his drive-in more food-oriented. After serving in World War II, John had been a route salesman for Sexton Foods.
During the days when those Beckley drive-ins were flourishing and open seven days a week, the owners experienced constant problems with staffing. So John and his competitors decided to draw straws to determine the day of the week when each of them would close. John drew Wednesdays, and the drive-in has closed on that day ever since.
Those aging recipe books are the source for several King Tut desserts. Fresh pies—apple, coconut cream, chocolate cream and cherry cream—are made daily.
Cars pull onto the lot and fill numbered lanes. Serving involves no roller skates. Ordering involves no technology. There is no push-button speaker. Car hops hand-write orders on pads. They bring food and drinks on iconic metal trays that mount on the car window. About half of King Tut’s business is takeout.
Rebecca Bradley says King Tut is a survivor. “When Sonic came in, it didn’t hurt our business. When Cook Out came in, it didn’t hurt our business.”
Although food comes to the car quickly, Dave and his staff take no shortcuts when it comes to preparation. Bread is homemade, another throwback to Kenneth McKay’s tea room days. Milkshakes are crafted with real ice cream. Pies contain no preservatives. Soups are made from scratch.
It’s American fast food raised to a high and respectable art.
King Tut Drive-In
301 North Eisenhower Drive,
Beckley, West Virginia.
Time Out for Tamarack
No trip to Beckley is complete for us without a stop at Tamarack: The Best of West Virginia. Whether it’s a fried green tomato sandwich in the food court or a bottle of pure West Virginia maple syrup, we always find good flavors at this place that celebrates the artistry and culture of the Mountain State.
It’s a great place to augment or start a collection of Fiestaware, the ceramic glazed dinnerware made in Newell, West Virginia.
On our most recent visit, we picked up a jar of ramp mustard, made in Loom, West Virginia, by Calvin Riggleman, a Marine who returned home from Iraq and started the Bigg Riggs line of products.
Bonnie Blue’s Blue Ribbon Bread & Butter Pickles made the shopping basket, too. They’re made, according to the label, “the old-fashioned way with apple cider vinegar, cane sugar, spices and a few secret tricks of the trade,” on Lightfoot Road in Hinton, West Virginia.
The Best of West Virginia,
One Tamarack Park,
Beckley, West Virginia.