East Knoxville's Cardin's Drive-In Has Been a Classic For 50 Years

Part of a series: Scene & Heard: Doing Business

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: north, south, east, and west.

What makes Knoxville unique? We often point to the cultural and entertainment offerings downtown, but most residents identify Knoxville with their own neighborhoods outside of the center city. In this third edition of our ongoing series, we visited unusual longtime businesses in Knoxville to simply record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city. These may be familiar places we've all heard about, or curious things that may surprise even their neighbors—but they're all Knoxville, and they're all worth getting to know better.

Every day is biscuit day at the iconic Cardin's Drive-In at 8529 Asheville Highway just west of Four Way, where the late W. H. Cardin and his wife Pauline started dishing up down-home eats in 1959. It's nothing fancy, just a low brick building that has sprouted a fiberglass shed which wraps around two sides and shelters six picnic tables. Customers who don't feel like socializing, or can't find a seat, are served old-school in their cars.

Oversized signs are suspended on each side and in the middle of the shed with breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus detailing a dizzying number of selections. Pauline, now 86, still works there, although she's turned the management chores to her daughter, Wilma Cardin. Wilma's daughter Melinda Roberts runs the breakfast shift and has the biscuits ready early. Just like her grandparents did.

The hours are 5 a.m.–11 p.m., Monday through Thursday. On Friday and Saturday Cardin's doesn't close until midnight, although they're back in business at 7. Sunday is their "short" day: 7 a.m.–11 p.m.

Cardin's has been named Knoxville's "Best Out-of-the-Way" eatery and was recently mentioned in the obituary of a prominent Carter Community citizen as one of his favorite places to go. The cheeseburgers and peanut butter milkshakes are legendary and the biggest complaint voiced against the drive-in is it's usually too crowded at rush hour.

"If you grew up in Carter, you ate at Cardin's," says County Commissioner Richard "Bud" Armstrong, a 1968 Carter High graduate who sticks with the classics—the hamburger, fresh, hot fries and thick, creamy milkshake. "It's one of those memory places."

"It's the classic American drive-in," says Daniel Sanders, who finished up at Carter High in 1999. "It's been a fixture in our community for more than 50 years and it'd be hard to imagine this place without it." Sanders has the same favorites as Armstrong, except he prefers a different beverage: the frosted Coke, a house specialty that has the consistency of a milkshake and needs to be sipped through a straw.

"That's the old standby for me," says Sanders, who is an assistant Knox County law director. "It's just a good place to go—one of those places you get homesick for if you've been away too long."

Though separated by three decades, both Sanders and Armstrong tell strikingly similar stories about socializing at Cardin's after high school football games. Sanders recalls going there with three or four carloads of football players and filling up the wooden picnic tables under the shed. Armstrong says it was the first stop on a teen-age cruising circuit that ran from the Pizza Palace and Nan Denton's on Magnolia to Shoney's and the A&W on Broadway and back again.

Achieving icon status was probably something W.H. and Pauline Cardin couldn't have imagined back in the late '50s when Pauline was sewing gussets at Standard Knitting Mills and W.H., a 100-percent disabled World War II veteran, was a commercial fisherman.

"Nobody'd hire Daddy till finally a friend gave him a job in a lime kiln," Wilma Cardin says. "The lime burned through his tongue and he got bursitis and had to have surgery and was off work, so he started commercial fishing by himself. It just does to show you no matter how bad things get, you make a way."

W.H. and Pauline had a true partnership, and Wilma says there's a worn spot in the kitchen floor where a reminder of her parents' labors shows through.

"They built this place at night. They laid green and white tile back in the kitchen. He laid green, she laid white; and you can see a little piece of that tile back there.

"Daddy was going to sell fish but when somebody came by and showed him an ice cream machine—he never did sell fish," Wilma says, laughing. "He and my mother took change out of their pockets to put in the register when they first started. Daddy never would go into debt."

Ask somebody from the environs of Strawberry Plains, Carter, or Mascot about Cardin's Drive-In, and you'll probably get warned not to go there at rush hour unless you've got some time.

And rush hour happens three times a day.

Wilma says that's why the restaurant's menu signs are so uncommonly long.

"I know you're not supposed to do that," she says. "But we have people who eat here three times a day, and we need a good variety for them to pick from." Breakfast favorites are biscuits—biscuits and gravy, steak and biscuits, ham and biscuits. Lunchtime is burger time, and those who come for dinner might choose chicken or chuck wagon steak or baskets of fried oysters.

The carhops are an integral part of the experience. Becky Neal has worked there for 32 years. Tracy Wilson is the niece of Cardin's first curb girl, Ann Brown. Ann's mother, the late Retha Smith, worked inside. Tracy's mother, Betty Fauver, works on the inside and is Ann's sister. Sharon Atkins is Ann's daughter

"We don't have a lot of turnover," says Wilma, who lives in the house next door and has worked in the restaurant all her life.

"If you ask Mama what the key to having a restaurant is, she'd tell you that we didn't know much about restaurants. We didn't eat out except for Helma's every once in a while, and the Blue Circle. She says she came in in the morning praying and left out praying. We don't have a lot of overhead and don't do anything exciting. The only thing we do is show up every day and have good food at good prices and consistent service."

The only thing that really worries Wilma besides the skyrocketing cost of health insurance (which Cardin's used to offer its employees but had to cancel when the price got too high) is the weather. Extreme weather, she says, is the scourge of drive-in restaurants.

"When it gets down to 8 degrees, that hurts more than snow. And when it gets up in the 90s with 85 percent humidity, people don't want to come sit out here. Back when it was so cold last winter, I felt so much responsibility—‘If I don't do this right, it's going to hurt a lot of people.' But I just prayed to God to take up the slack and we kept on trying and it turned out okay. God's took care of us."