Tour of Tupelo #1 - Johnnie's Drive-In

Incredibly, it had never occurred to us to tour Tupelo. Who goes sightseeing in their hometown? After all, the idea behind Tiny Travels was to see places in Mississippi we’d never seen. However, once we thought about it, we quickly warmed to the idea of snooping around Tupelo and knew just where we wanted to go first: Johnnie’s Drive-In. When a restaurant established in 1945 is still around in 2011, it deserves a visit.

Johnnie’s is on East Main Street, deep in the heart of Elvis Country. In fact, along with its longevity, Elvis is one of Johnnie’s claims to fame - they're even featured on the Elvis Presley's Early Years Driving Tour. It seems he used to frequent the drive-in as often as he could during his impoverished youth – if only to split an RC Cola with a friend. And apparently he regularly stopped in on his visits back to Tupelo after he made good.

Customers have the choice of outside table seating, car hop service, or table seating inside. Since there is nothing Elvis-related outside, we opted to go in. In fact, we went right in and sat down in the “Elvis booth,” and yes, it’s really labeled.

Some of the countless pictures of Elvis decorating the walls of Johnnie's.

That's my water on the right! Imagine...sitting right next to the King in his own booth!

There’s a picture on the wall above the booth, showing a circa 1960 Elvis sitting right where Marian was sitting! Actually, there are about a zillion pictures of Elvis on the walls and yet…somehow…it doesn’t seem like “too much.” Really. Must be the “Elvis effect.”

Yep, Mississippi has its own Elvis Presley tag! A fine example shown here -- now used as wall art in Johnnie's.

We walked around admiring the many photos and bits of memorabilia that adorn Johnnie’s walls, taking photos of photos and soaking up the nostalgia of being someplace that remains virtually unchanged from its original incarnation. The old booths are still there, along with the old tables, the big cut-out opening directly into the kitchen, the individual letters that spell out the menu items on large plastic signs…same old, same old.

Elvis's birthday cakes were all made by Kermit's Bakery in downtown Tupelo. They were carefully shipped to wherever Elvis happened to be on January 8th. This picture was taken in Kermit's in the early 60s.

Here in Elvisland, walking around clicking your camera doesn't faze employees or regular customers – it happens every day. And once we got our photos, we did sit down long enough to order. Although Johnnie’s is best-known for its “dough burgers” and barbeque, we both ordered the standard hamburger with fries. After all, we’re diners, not restaurant reviewers, and we’ve done the dough burger thing. There was a moment of disappointment when our orders came and we saw crinkle cut fries, but they were good – don’t know how they managed that. The burgers were tasty in a real-food, just-like-you-remember kind of way. What a treat.

After we ate, we walked around to the front of Johnnie’s (you park on the side, so we really hadn’t seen the front). There, painted on the big window, was their phone number “VI2- 6748.”

The front of Johnnie's. Just like most southern homes, the front door isn't used much--friends use the back door. Note the plaque attesting to their relationship with Elvis.

Could a visit chosen purely for its nostalgia quotient have a better ending? Seriously. Who knows when that number was painted on there, but for those of us who remember using the VInewood prefix, who spent our formative years reciting our phone number as Vinewood-two- ---- or VI-2- ---- – that is, for those of us who remember 1950s Tupelo – it’s a heartwarming sight.

1 comment:

  1. My grandfather was John "Johnnie" Chism. He and my grandmother owned and ran the restaurant for over 30 years. My mother worked as a waitress during school. According to them, Elvis never once set foot inside, much less had a regular table! That photo was taken somewhere that looks very similar to Johnnie's.