Cruising down the beach road in Kitty Hawk, you’re likely to encounter a traffic jam around lunchtime near Milepost 5, where there’s a clamor for parking spaces in front of John’s Drive In.
Locals and tourists flock to the classic beach shack for homemade food at one of a dozen or so picnic tables a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean. There, you can sit with your toes in the sand and enjoy John’s famous dolphin boat and a chocolate peanut butter milkshake. Or maybe the daily specials, which recently were grilled Cajun yellowfin tuna sandwiches, fried shrimp and grit cakes and “Super Duper Grouper.”
Or perhaps you’d like to bring your dog for a little cool down on a hot day – the staff is glad to hand you a free “puppy cup” of soft serve vanilla ice cream for your pooch. Many a canine birthday party has been held here.
The tiny drive-in celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, an OBX tradition long before the Outer Banks was dubbed OBX. Parents make the trek on foot with their children, to show them where they dined on burgers and fries back in the day. Tourists stumble upon it, and regulars keep coming back.
There is almost never not a line at John’s, which serves several hundred people daily except Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. or whenever the food runs out. Just follow the crowd to the small white building topped with the big ice cream cone sign. The south and north sides are plastered with photos of smiling customers, family reunions, new babies and dogs with ice cream on their snouts.
Some photos are curling or yellowed from age. One is black and white, an old shot of the drive-in’s founders, John and Pat Tice, also known as Big John and Ms. Pat. The couple moved South from Pittsburgh after vacationing on the Outer Banks for years. They bought the building, which had been the Dairy Mart since the 1950s. In 1977, it became John’s.
John Tice Sr. had a vision. He wanted to serve quality food that would be affordable for a big family on vacation. He and Pat went to work perfecting the recipes and the homemade tartar sauce and cocktail sauce to be served with fresh fish, shrimp and crab cakes. The couple worked hard and their three teenagers – Mona, John Jr. and Tina – joined in cooking and serving customers.
John Sr. died a decade ago. Now John Jr., “Little John,” runs the show. He’s been working at the drive-in since he was 15. He calls it an “old school” family place.
“When I make my fresh tuna salad, I make it just like my mom did,” Tice said on a recent afternoon after closing.
“In a world of constant change, we don’t,” he said. “People like that.”
Although there are specials based on that day’s catch, the menu really doesn’t vary: fish, shrimp, chicken, crab cakes, burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches. If you don’t want fries with your sandwich, you can get onion rings or fried okra. The menu favorite is the dolphin boat – fried mahi mahi pieces, served with french fries and coleslaw, and homemade sauce on the side.
Tice said tourists sometimes seem surprised that a simple drive-in would serve fresh fish, crab cakes and fare that might be considered a little more high end. “That’s what makes it fun,” he said.
The place has legions of fans. It earns 4.9 star reviews on Facebook, where Jared Sandler recently posted: “I am local and have been going ever since I was a small child. John’s never disappoints, the food is great and very consistent. Always great to stop by and see the place packed. John’s is an OBX legend.”
Order at the window and find a picnic table at the side or behind the restaurant. Your meal may take a little time because everything is cooked to order. While you wait, take in a view of the ocean across the street. Children pass the time by posing for pictures, sticking their heads through a wooden cutout of a dolphin with a chef’s hat – John’s old sign that likely blew down in a storm.
If you hurry, you might be able to buy a John’s anniversary T-shirt. They’re going fast.
The slogan: “Totally fried and still shakin’ after 40 years.”
Good Eatin’, the News & Observer’s weekly visit to local eateries in North Carolina, will continue through Labor Day. To see other installments, go to nando.com/goodeatin.
If you go
John’s Drive In, 3716 Virginia Dare Trail North, Kitty Hawk. 252-261-6227. Hours: Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. www.johnsdrivein.com. On Facebook: www.facebook.com/johnsdriveinkh
On the menu
▪ Dolphin boat (with fries and coleslaw) – market price
▪ Crab cake boat (with fries and coleslaw): $9.75
▪ Cajun crab sub: $5.95
▪ Bacon cheeseburger (10.6 oz.): $8.50
▪ Fried chicken sandwich: $5.50
▪ Fresh tuna salad sandwich: $5.95
▪ Upside down banana split: $6.25
▪ Large chocolate peanut butter shake: $5.25