Arts & Culture

A West Virginia Drive-In Dynasty Stays Open

As theaters, restaurants, and bars across the country temporarily close, long-standing drive-ins remain

Photo: Courtesy of King Tut Drive In

It’s been seventy-five years—at least to the best of anyone’s knowledge—since the King Tut Drive-In served its first hot dog in Beckley, West Virginia. “And we really haven’t changed much since then,” says Dave McKay, the drive-in’s owner. And although restaurants throughout the country are scrambling to convert operations to take-out only or shuttering indefinitely to protect servers and patrons from the coronavirus, drive-ins have a unique advantage: their business model of serving food to customers in cars has always kept people at a distance. 

photo: Courtesy of King Tut Drive In
King Tut in the 1950s.

With the exception of trading the metal trays carhops have traditionally clipped to rolled-down windows for disposable take-out containers, the restaurant is running as usual. “We’re still open,” McKay says. “Our typical lunch hour is made up of working people, and since most businesses are closed, lunch has been slow, but we’ve gotten big take-out orders in the evenings—and even some new customers who’ve never eaten here before.” 

Considering the establishment’s deep roots in Beckley, it’s hard to imagine that a local exists who hasn’t dropped in for a bite before. McKay’s father, John, bought the drive-in from the Tutweiler family in 1955 (on the condition that Mr. Tutweiler receive a free chicken dinner each Sunday), and passed it on to his son in 2004. Known for mustard, onion, chili, and slaw dogs on toasted buns, King Tut has an expansive menu that also includes an ample sandwich list, steaks, hush puppies, homemade coconut cream pies, and pizza. “My dad introduced pizza to Beckley in the 1950s—no one had ever had it here before,” McKay says. “At first, he had to give it away for free.” 

photo: Courtesy of King Tut Drive In
Loaded dogs at King Tut.

Still today, cars pull into the parking spots and flash their lights to signal carhops, harking back to the golden era of drive-in eating—on most days of the week. “We’re closed on Wednesday because the three drive-ins that were in Beckley when we started out each picked a day to be closed, and my dad drew the straw for Wednesday,” McKay says. “I’ve tried to change it a few times, but people won’t have it.” Hardheaded loyalty and loaded hot dogs: For McKay, those seem to be the secrets to longevity. 

“And if I can keep finding bleach to clean, we’ll stay open,” McKay says. “We’ll keep serving as long as we can.”