On Nov. 14, 2017, fire destroyed the original Clarence’s Drive-In, leaving owners Jerry and Teresa Collins pondering whether to quit or to start anew. Fortunately for their customers, especially those who made dining at Clarence’s Drive-In a weekly or in some cases, daily habit, the Collins decided to rebuild. It took a year and a half, but the Collins’ effort and hard work was successful and Clarence’s Drive-In has been resurrected at its new location.
The new version of Clarence’s Drive-In can be found heading south on Interstate 26 just past of Unicoi. Take exit 36 and turn left on Harris Hollow Road. At the stoplight turn left, then immediately turn right and you’re there. Jerry and Teresa Collins have taken an eighties-style fast food restaurant and given it a new, more open and relaxed design, with enough sturdy tables, comfortable chairs and booths to handle a hundred or so patrons.
Meat loaf platter: My dining partner and I first heard of Clarence’s Drive-In reopening from our friends the Dieter and Carnivore who suggested we have supper there. A 15-minute drive south from Johnson City found the four of us comfortably seated in Clarence’s dining area, and talking to our server Amanda, who welcomed the four of us as old friends, and getting our drinks order from memory. In discussing the daily specials, Amanda’s mention of meat loaf got an immediate order from the Carnivore ($8.29) complete with baked potato, steamed green beans and a dinner roll. My meat-eating friend is quite partial to the way Clarence’s mixes lean ground beef and pork together with chopped onion, diced green pepper and their own special blend of spices. After baking the entrée arrives, still sizzling on the Carnivore’s platter together with a baked russet potato dressed “all the way,” and green beans that were steamed to be crunchy and still have the “green” taste on them. Delicious.
Blue Plate Special – Pan-fried chicken: Clarence’s Blue Plate Special was their pan-fried chicken platter ($8.99), which was what my dining partner wanted for her supper, choosing a baked potato and a house salad as side orders, with cornbread instead of the usual dinner roll. Clarence’s kitchen makes their fried chicken the way my dining partner’s mother (the redoubtable Mamaw) showed her. Lightly season your chicken pieces (in this case a plump breast and meaty wing) with salt & pepper, dredge in flour and pan-fry until golden brown. Serve on a blue plate (of course), together with a russet baked potato and a garden fresh side salad of field greens, julienned carrot and sliced red onions. Simple, honest fare that my dining partner thoroughly enjoyed.
Pinto Beans Special: The Dieter, hungry for something simple, chose a favorite of hers, the Pinto Beans Special ($2.99). This is a bowl of slow-simmered pinto beans with chopped raw onions mixed in and served with cornbread muffins. Our friend asked for an extra side order of Clarence’s special coleslaw ($1.99). Mixing the coleslaw with the pinto beans, the onions and the crumbled-up cornbread muffins makes what the Dieter terms “Sloosh.” This build-it-yourself meal of hers is really tasty. I know; I had some.
Hamburger Steak platter with fried green tomatoes: Having had a week that was a bit more, umm, “eventful” than what I was used to, I sought true comfort for my evening meal in the form of an 8-ounce hamburger steak ($8.99) grilled with peppers & onions and plattered with a baked potato and a cool, green house salad as the side orders. As I was handing Amanda my menu, I spotted fried green tomatoes ($2.50) as an appetizer, and ordered some for my friends and me to munch on. The tomatoes showed up with my meal, but still got handed around to my appreciative tablemates. Everyone enjoyed the slightly sour tang and pungency of green tomatoes dipped in an egg wash, dredged in a mixture of seasoned flour and cornmeal and then deep-fried until hot on the inside and crunchy on the outside. The hamburger steak arrived medium-well, just as Amanda remembered it, the pepper & onion sauté adding that extra savory something to the lean ground sirloin steak Clarence’s uses. The russet baked potato was also good, needing only a touch of real butter to enhance its nut-like flavor, and the garden salad made a delightful palate cleanser when dressed with an astringent cider-based vinaigrette.
The bottom line: It is good to see Jerry and Teresa Collins re-opening Clarence’s Drive-In for business, and at a location near I-26 that is sure to bring customers, first to their ample parking lot and then to their front door. The remodel makes their new building comfortable, airy and bright. The servers are still friendly and professional, and the food is both delicious and an excellent value. My friends and I are sure to return to Clarence’s Drive-In, and soon.
1502 N. Main Ave., Erwin, Tennessee
Mon-Sat 6 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Sun 7 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Available on Facebook
Credit cards accepted