Kay’s Restaurant is perhaps one of the best-kept 37-year-old secrets in the area, at least for those who don’t routinely travel 11-W between Crown Colony and the Highway 394 turnoff to Blountville.
We were alerted to go visit Kay’s by Arcadia resident Ricky Nottingham and his mother, Barbara Carr, who recently moved back to Kingsport after years of living in Georgia.
“We go at least once a week, if not twice,” Carr said, noting everything Nottingham orders looks good, but she can’t yet pass up the chance to have a Kay’s hamburger and tater tots to try the rest of the menu.
“It’s the best hamburger I’ve ever had,” Carr said.
Kay Huffman is the owner and chief cook. She and her late husband opened the business as a fruit stand. At the time, dining options between the John B. Dennis Bypass in Kingsport and Interstate 81 at Bristol were sparse, to say the least, on 11-W.
Customers to the fruit stand started asking if soft drinks or coffee were available. By the second year, they were asking for light food items such as sandwiches. So Kay’s added a walk-up order window to provide coffee, soft drinks, snacks and sandwiches.
“Then they started asking for hot food,” Huffman said. “Home cooking.”
Kay’s small dining area was enclosed. And in the years since, it draws a steady stream of diners, many of whom are regulars.
Carr told us she met one diner, also a recent transplant back to the area, who said she’d eaten at Kay’s every day for weeks.
Huffman said the restaurant does have a solid base of regulars, but newcomers aren’t unusual and seem to be on the upswing of late. Fan favorites include burgers, tots, cheddar rounds and other typical diner fare. But Kay’s daily specials rate their own group of devotees. Especially popular are soup beans and cornbread ($5) on Mondays and what is listed as roast beef, potatoes, gravy ($7) on Fridays.
Speaking of prices, Kay’s Restaurant is cash only. Credit and debit cards are not accepted.
The latter is a sort of upside-down open-faced pot roast sandwich, with mashed potatoes and smothered in rich brown gravy. The very tender, very lean shredded roast beef is first on the plate. It’s topped with mashed potatoes flanked by two triangular half-slices of loaf bread, and the gravy tops everything.
Kay said she typically buys a 20-pound roast for Friday’s special, but she trims off ALL the fat. Be warned, the roast beef special is often sold out well before closing. The lunch rush begins around 11 a.m.
The other days of the week, the daily special is Kay’s choice. Vegetable plates are $5. Dinners are mostly $7.
The full breakfast menu is available all day, with two exceptions: Once the biscuits or gravy run out, that’s it for the day.
We asked Huffman and her employees to answer the following questions.
Q: How long has your restaurant been in operation?
A: Nearly 37 years. We opened on June 27, 1985.
Q: What do you consider the specialties at your restaurant and why.
A: Soup beans with cornbread, biscuits and gravy, and our daily specials such as roast beef on Fridays. Our food is special because everything is made from scratch.
Q: What is your culinary education and how did you learn to do what you do in the kitchen?
A: I started mastering home cooking at, well, home, at the age of 11, Kay said. And she’s been doing it ever since. Kay’s right hand in the Kay’s kitchen is Becky Nelson. Becky said she learned to cook from the best: Kay.
Q: Explain in as much detail as possible why your restaurant is appealing to customers and how you maintain that ambience.
A: Home cooking prepared daily. Our dining area is small and comfy. We want our customers to feel like they’re at home, and we do our best to treat them like family. We wouldn’t be who and what we are today without all of our loyal customers, new and old.
Q: Do you share recipes with your diners? If so, please share your favorite recipe.
A: No. We don’t really use recipes. Everything we fix is a pinch here or a pinch there.
Q: How do you think your restaurant differs from other restaurants in the Tri-Cities region?
A: We are a family-owned country restaurant. It’s just come as you are.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of your location?
A: An advantage is we are the only (non-fast food) restaurant on 11W between Kingsport and Bristol. No disadvantages come to mind.
Q: How often do you change the menu at the restaurant and why?
A: The menu doesn’t change, other than the daily specials on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. And even those are going to be something tried and true.
Q: What’s your favorite cookbook?
A: Kay said she enjoys old-timey cookbooks but doesn’t have a particular favorite.