Frayed Pride and Fried Pickles
One family built a little restaurant in Plaza Midwood called The Penguin. Three friends reinvented it. A neighborhood adopted it, then a city claimed it. They all thought they owned it. Then, one day last fall, all hell broke loose
This little restaurant, at the corner of Thomas and Commonwealth in Plaza Midwood, was the talk of the city last fall.
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Brian Rowe smokes. He hasn’t gone to get a new tattoo in six years, but there are already more than enough to cover his arms. He dresses like a greaser because he likes it—the wallet chain, the cuffed jeans, the rolled-up sleeves, everything. He calls himself a jarhead. He drove a tank during Desert Storm, then spent years working as a roofer. He was a bouncer at old Charlotte nightclubs like the Milestone and Mythos. He wrecked his motorcycle in 1996. He can show you where the bones came poking through the skin on his leg.
Want to make Brian Rowe cry? Ask him about the letter he got a couple years ago, when he was still running The Penguin. This kid, he says, moved here to go to UNC-Charlotte. Real shy guy, this kid. Just socially awkward. And then, he made a friend. They would meet at The Penguin once a week to talk about school and girls and whatever was bothering them. And slowly, the kid realized that he wasn’t so alone after all. He became, he said, the man he is today. With the letter, he included a ten-dollar bill. If you ever see another young college student in The Penguin, he wrote, buy him a beer. On me.
“That fucked me up, man,” Rowe says. His eyes tear up. He rocks back and forth on his chair. He takes a drag off his Camel. He needs a moment.
The space above the Diamond Restaurant, where Rowe is sitting and rocking and talking, is a big, open room full of all sorts of junk. The brick walls are painted green. The syrup canisters for the soft drinks are in the corner, napkins are on a shelf, and a few computers sit along the wall that holds up the red neon sign, the one you can see from Independence Boulevard. You can hear the music thumping from the jukebox downstairs, the same jukebox that used to be in The Penguin.
This is a bit of déjà vu for Rowe. The renovating. The painting. The loans. The long hours. The test runs. The new menu. Everything seems the same. Ten years ago, he was here in Plaza Midwood, putting his heart and soul and sweat into an old restaurant at 1921 Commonwealth Avenue called The Penguin. Now he’s doing it at 1901 Commonwealth at a place called the Diamond. Same street. Different old restaurant.
Ten years ago, Brian Rowe and his friend Jimmy King just wanted their own neighborhood joint at the corner of Thomas and Commonwealth, the kind where you could stop in for a beer and a bite and a conversation. But the rest of the world eventually found out about it, and the rest of the world decided it wanted one of its own. Why shouldn’t there be more Penguins in other neighborhoods in other cities? It became obvious that the place was worth something. In the cigarette-fueled haze between the Pabst Blue Ribbons and the Big Block Burgers, people started to realize there was money to be made. Big money.
What came next was a mishmash of lawyers, trademarks, Facebook rage, frayed pride, and fried pickles. What came next was a debate between corporate and cool—a debate over the ownership of a name and the ownership of the things it stood for.
Brian Rowe thought The Penguin was his. He was right. And he was wrong.
Plaza Midwood is throbbing with barbershops and salons, tattoo parlors and pawnshops, and a record store selling vinyl. Bungalows sit on the streets behind Central Avenue, and in front, spread out over two square blocks, there are a dozen places to get a drink and a meal. There’s a Jamaican joint next to the art gallery that serves beer under Soul Gastrolounge, which is down the block from John’s Country Kitchen, across the street from Dish, which is across from Zada Jane’s. Thomas Street Tavern is in the old post office. There’s probably a band playing at Snug Harbor. In the outcropping at the end of the aisles of groceries and novelties at the Common Market, a guy in a powder-blue argyle sweater stands next to a skinny guy with enough tattoos to frighten a grandmother to death.
a debate over the ownership of a name and the ownership of the things it stood for.
The word for this, the word your parents would probably use, is “trendy.” Or “young.” Or “hip.” Plaza Midwood doesn’t want you to get dressed up. It wants you to put on your Carhartt jacket, your ratty button-down shirt, your stocking cap, your fishnet stockings, and your hot-pink extensions. It wants you to get out of your car and amble down the sidewalk. It wants you to roll up your sleeves to show off the art on your arms. It wants to make you proud to be dirty. It is where you go if you need to loosen up. If you need to prove you’re not stiff. It is where Charlotte goes to prove that it’s not Charlotte.
Plaza Midwood used to be grittier, full of addicts and criminals and lost jobs and 1950s glory faded into a dull 1970s taupe. That’s the neighborhood The Penguin Drive-In inhabited for most of its life. The long and narrow gray stone-and-brick building has been in the Ballentine family for fifty-seven years. Jim Ballentine was there for forty-seven of them, working seven days a week from 10 in the morning until the bleary hours of the night.
He came home from World War II with a Purple Heart, a Soldier’s Medal, and two Bronze Stars. He started working at the Nance Drug Store on Caswell, and met his future wife, Jean, on her first day working as a nurse at Mercy Hospital up the street. He said when he and Jean got married, they should open a restaurant. He said that on their first date: when we get married.
In 1954, at age twenty-eight, Ballentine borrowed money from his dad and bought an ice cream shop named The Penguin. He turned the white stucco building into a drive-in, complete with hot dogs and carhops and a soda fountain. Later he started serving beer. Jim and Jean lived in a house they’d bought next to Jim’s parents on East Fifth Street. Jean quit the hospital to work at the restaurant, and within two years Jim had worked hard enough to pay back his father. Five daughters came, and they became The Penguin’s family wait staff.
Jim Ballentine never advertised. He didn’t need to. He kept the beer cold. He kept the food cheap. People kept coming in. They kept coming back. They kept spreading the word.
At first, the place was clean, shiny, and new. But as the neighborhood started to get dirtier, so did The Penguin. In the seventies and eighties the drive-in became more dangerous. People broke in to steal beer and smokes. Jim made a rule: his daughters could still work there, but they had to be out by the time the sun went down.
One night, Jim shot a guy. This was in 1990, when he was locking up and some hoodlum came at him and Jim pulled out a pistol and fired and hit the guy in the shoulder. And later at the hospital, the guy confessed to breaking into The Penguin fifteen times in fifteen weeks. Ballentine was never charged with a crime. But he still had to keep replacing broken windows. People would break them to get in to steal smokes. Or beer. Or money. Some people would break them just to break them. Before he left every night, Jim would call Jean and leave the phone at The Penguin off the hook. Once he got back home, he would keep his phone nearby and listen for the glass to break.