A SCOOP: After decades, Charlotte's iconic Penguin sign is coming down
The spinning landmark at the corner of Thomas and Commonwealth in Plaza Midwood will be removed soon.
Hey everyone. This here newsletter has been on a little bit of a hiatus over the last few weeks. More on that soon. But I’m back today because there’s a bit of honest-to-goodness breaking news on a story that I’ve been covering for the better part of a decade:
After decades at the corner of Thomas and Commonwealth Avenues in Charlotte, the Penguin Drive-In sign will be coming down. Two sources tell me that the sign will be removed soon, but won’t disappear completely: The plan is for one of its plastic panels to hang at Midwood Park, and for the other to go on display at the Charlotte History Museum. There’s an event planned for this Friday, and a more formal announcement will come out this morning.
(UPDATE as of 9:11 a.m.: The sign will come down Friday at 3:30 p.m., and the property’s new inhabitant, Calle Sol Neighborhood Latin Café & Cevicheria, is holding a retirement party for it. Emma Way of Axios Charlotte has a little more detail here from Calle Sol’s owner Frank Scibelli, as well as the folks from the Plaza Midwood Neighborhood Association. Also, credit to Andy Smith at Charlotte magazine who mentioned the sign’s impending doom in a story last month.)
If you’re struggling to understand why this is a big deal, and you’ve got a bit of time to kill, may I refer you to this Charlotte magazine story I wrote 10 years ago, or this edition of the Rabbit Hole that I wrote 15 weeks ago. If you’re busy, or from out of town, or new to Charlotte, the short version is that the Penguin had been a little restaurant that existed, in some form, at that corner in Plaza Midwood since 1954. It was a family diner for a very long time, got run down, was revived by two new managers, helped lead the way for a revitalization of the neighborhood, and received a visit from Guy Fieri himself. It achieved somewhat of a legendary status before fighting between the managers and the original owners led to a split that ultimately killed the restaurant, which officially closed in 2014. Since then, that space has been occupied by a handful of restaurants that have come and gone, and is currently the home of Calle Sol Neighborhood Latin Café & Cevicheria.
Through it all though, the Penguin sign has sort of just stood watch over that corner, a sort of gravestone that reminds folks of the neighborhood that Plaza Midwood used to be: Once new, then grimy, then plucky, then sought-after. There’s a new version of the Penguin coming from Martin Sprock, the man who once sought to franchise it way back at the peak of it popularity. But it’ll be over in Dilworth, on East Boulevard. Its menu and presumably its vibe, will be much different. Sprock owns the copyright to the Penguin’s name and logo, and will be using both at his new location. Having a sign in front of the old place that reminds people of where and what it used to be would be confusing. I get it.
Still though, Charlotte is a place that has always tended to prioritize the new over the established. To paraphrase local historian Tom Hanchett, the city’s always had a little more money than it did the year before, and can afford to tear down its history before it gets old. When it does, it leaves folks grasping at the totems of what used to be. Charlotte’s still walking around with some keys to cars that it no longer owns. Over time, they have to come off of the keychain to make room for something else.