Every six months or so, we get a phone call or an e-mail at The Pitch
wondering if the iconic Harold's Drive-In at 1337 Admiral Boulevard has closed. The answer is always no.
Those rumors drive owner Nancy Smith nearly apoplectic: "If we close early or take a day off, the rumors start up that we're closed forever. But we've been here for over a half-century and will probably be around for another 50 years."
Nancy Smith was a former employee of the drive-in's namesake, Harold McBain, when she bought the business from him in 1998. "I worked here from 1983 to 1986. But my sisters have been working here forever."
Smith's sister, Mary Moore, has been tending the flattop grill — where breakfast sandwiches, big burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches are served five days a week from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. — for 30 years; another sister, Caramae, has been behind the counter nearly as long. It really is a family affair; if you didn't know that the trio were siblings, their good-natured squabbling might not be so funny. But the interaction among the sisters is part of the fun in sitting on benches in the waiting lobby on the customer side of the counter.
When Harold McBain opened Harold's in 1958, drive-in restaurants were the rage across the United States. Nancy Smith doesn't think that Harold's ever had carhops: "Until the late 1970s, the building had an open window facing the street. People drove into the parking lot, came up to the counter, ordered, paid and left."
That's still pretty much the way it is now, except that the small, whitewashed building is now completely enclosed. Patrons still can't eat inside Harold's, but at least they can wait for their breakfasts and lunches without dealing with bad weather. There's still no drive-in window. Smith says, "We've discussed that a lot over the years, but it would require moving the building."
Harold McBain watched this corner of Admiral Boulevard change dramatically during his tenure, from 1958 to 1998. This was, even 100 years ago, an ethically diverse neighborhood filled with churches, homes and even the first Young Men's Hebrew Association (a precursor of the Jewish Community Center). Nancy Smith says she's seen her own changes in the neighborhood over the last 16 years.
"This area has cleaned up quite a bit," Smith says.
The best-selling burger here remains the triple cheeseburger ($8 with fries, a drink and tax). It's not the healthiest cheeseburger in the metro — if there is such a thing — but it's certainly one of the biggest.