Operating in its boat-form architecture since 1960, the fast-food restaurant gained popularity from serving family-style meals only available for take-out. Every Friday and Saturday night, Bynum remembers eating fried chicken and the Ark’s famous hushpuppies, something locals still reel over today. Bynum covets the cornmeal recipe but promises its homey goodness.
“We serve food just like grandma used to make,” she says, quite literally recollecting: “She’d go into the kitchen Sunday morning and fry you up some chicken.” From childhood into young adulthood, the Ark always beckoned Bynum. She would visit from college on weekends to work the restaurant while her family also tended to the jukebox business next door.
“And when I got married and had my kids, they, too, would come with me and eat hushpuppies while sitting on ’tatter boxes,’” she says, referring to the large cardboard boxes that held multitudes of sliced potatoes to be made into fries. In 1992 Kathy bought the family restaurant after her father passed away. She continuously worked the family legacy, which helped put her children through college and has even paid for a few weddings.
On March 22, 2002, at 8:30 a.m., a grease fire turned catastrophic as it spread from a vat of hot oil throughout the restaurant. The employees tried to extinguish it, but the fire overwhelmed the structure. When the fire department was unable to note it as a mechanical problem, employees, family and friends began to salvage remaining items and food out of the damaged building. Bynum directed customers to another family-owned Ark, located on Piney Green, which was in operation at the time. There, customers could still get the Ark experience, including homey service and a family-style meal, while Bynum and employees rebuilt Jacksonville’s landmark.
After the fire, the initial design did not change. Bynum added a porch and bathroom. Yet, everything remained to its original design. But it’s the history of the Ark, evident by porthole windows on the building, rusted metal on the sign and that family pride shining through every paper-wrapped sandwich, which sanctions Southern goodness. Best-known for its diversity of clientele, veritable palates will relish the fried seafood and chicken, along with homemade barbecue and classic sides, like cole slaw, French fries, hushpuppies, mac and cheese, okra, baked beans and string beans.
Perhaps of the most importance is the care Bynum takes toward local ingredients. Their seafood is trucked in by Nichol’s, from Wallace NC. Their age-old cooking techniques and habits include avoiding anything processed; they bread their seafood and chicken by hand daily, as well.
The tasteful, perfectly seasoned shrimp burger comes piled high on a bun, paired with slaw and French fries. The freshness of the shrimp pops with every bite and balances the sweetness of the slaw with the saltiness of the fries. Of course any good Southerner knows to wash it all down with the Ark’s “medium-sized” sweet tea. But the must-try is the hushpuppies—a dozen of the golden fluff balls ringing in at under $3. The homemade batter is dropped into the fryer for two to three minutes and comes served, “wrapped in paper and then put into a bag,” as the Ark motto goes.
Specials run the gamut, including hot-wing Wednesdays, the busiest day at the restaurant. Customers get 10 wings free after buying 10 for $6.47. “It’s a big hit with the fire and police departments,” Bynum states. They are also planning on incorporating other specials during the week.
Though their popularity has been grounded over multiple decades, Bynum says she’s still shocked by locals who are unaware of the Ark’s existence. Sure to follow are her family’s words to live by: “Give us a try, you might like us.”
Bynum is planning a 50-year celebration of the Ark sometime this year. The Ark Drive-Inn is open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.