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The Penguin And The Search For Authenticity in Charlotte
The Penguin is back in the news today for the first time in a while, and if you have no idea why that’s sort of a big deal in Charlotte…
The Penguin is back in the news today for the first time in a while, and if you have no idea why that’s sort of a big deal in Charlotte, let me attempt to get you up to speed. There was once this little dive bar at the corner of Thomas and Commonwealth in Plaza Midwood where you used to be able to go and hang out, have a PBR, chill with other Plaza Midwooders, whatever. It was gritty but not too gritty, and they served greasy food late, and it wasn’t big enough to be a huge moneymaker, but it had this vibe you couldn’t get anywhere else in town, really. In a city where all art seemed corporate, the spinning, glowing penguin sign on the corner seemed to be a beacon of counter-culture. The Penguin was Plaza Midwood distilled. A throwback that thumbed its nose at nostalgia. A pond of ripped jeans in an ocean of khaki.
Of course, it didn’t last. For one thing, Guy Fieri showed up and put the place on TV, and then it became a tourist destination. That led the family who’d owned the building since the 1950s to think that they should, once again, take a more active role in the business. Since 2000, they’d been content to allow the managers, Jimmy King and Brian Rowe, free rein to run the place and use the historic Penguin name. The infighting began in 2010. The family wanted to capitalize on The Penguin’s growing popularity. King and Rowe felt like doing that would undermine what they’d done to make The Penguin special. But the family owned the property and the trademark, and they won out, and King and Rowe got booted out. That move led to what was, maybe, Charlotte’s first real social media-fueled controversy. #Penguingate was a real thing. People were genuinely mad online about a restaurant. Misinformation spread.
About a decade ago, I pitched a big feature story about this to Charlotte magazine, and I tried to talk to as many people involved as possible to understand what really happened, and why people cared so much. I, as I often do, gathered way too much information and context, and then boldly filed 9,600 words for a story that only had room for 5,000. My editor, the fantastic Rick Thurmond, gently told me that I needed to cut my story in half. But I can’t, I whined, I don’t even know where to start. It was then that Rick gave me a piece of advice that I still use and give out to this day. Look, he said, this story’s big and complicated, with a lot of nuance and twists and turns, but at its core, it’s about one thing. One word. What is that word? Figure that out, and you’ll know what can stay in, and what can go.
There was one word that came to mind immediately: Cool. But that wasn’t it. Passion? Maybe. Pride? Sort of. I tossed a bunch of other words out. Anger. Loyalty. Neighbors. None worked. Then Rick came up with one: Ownership. It was perfect. That led to the tagline for the story:
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.
The story came out in April 2011, and it was as big of a phenomenon as anything I’ve ever written, partially because it was story about the city where I lived, and I could watch people buzzing about it in real time, all around me. But the controversy itself said something about Charlotte, which was going through a period of upheaval and growth. This incident at a restaurant was a small window into something bigger going on all around town, I thought. It was the battle that turned the tide against the little guys in Charlotte. The boulder of development was rolling downhill too quickly now and unable to be slowed down. The only option was to get out of the way, or be squashed.
Since then, I’ve checked in on the characters from time to time. Brian and Jimmy became managers at the Diamond Restaurant down the block on Commonwealth, and their regulars followed them there. The plan to franchise The Penguin never materialized. Sales sagged. It closed for good in 2015. There’s a new restaurant there now with a different vibe, but the old Penguin sign still stands on the corner, as a totem to the past. Nobody has the heart, or maybe the balls, to tear it down. In 2015, Brian told me that he’d love to go back into the old building, and just put everything back the way it was. “I just don’t see any downside to it,” he said.
A few weeks ago, Brian called me to tell me that he was basically doing just that, albeit in a new place. He’d been renovating an old house in Optimist Park and planned to re-create as much of The Penguin in it as he could. He was short on money, and wanted some help getting the word out. I told him it was good to hear from him, and that I’d call him back, but I never followed up. After all, I’d been off The Penguin beat for years.
Today, I got a little more of a look at his plans. The place is gonna be called Bird Bones. The logo, for now, is a silhouette of the old penguin logo with some bones inside, kind of like a punk rock album cover. Penguin regulars are donating to the GoFundMe page that Brian says he needs to get the place up and running. He says he needs $150,000. A week in, he’s raised about $500.
I hope he makes it. I really do. I also realized something. I was wrong about how I framed my story back then. For a long time, I felt like this was the key phrase:
The Penguin belonged to Charlotte. And when it changed, Charlotte felt like, as an owner, it had to speak up.
But in retrospect, this was it:
You cannot build something new and call it historic. You cannot transplant a soul.
The story wasn’t about ownership. It was about authenticity.
One of the side effects of the Penguin story was it grew my career in a way I didn’t anticipate. The story got the attention of editors at Our State magazine, which led to freelance offers, and then a full-time job in 2015. I moved to Greensboro, but I come back to town from time to time. I follow Charlotte news from afar, and I know the city wasn’t frozen in time when I left, but I’m still shocked by how quickly Charlotte has become unrecognizable to me. There are a lot of examples of this, but The Thirsty Beaver is my go-to visual metaphor:
The Beaver: Come for the cheap beer and dystopian visual, stay for the notorious NASCAR poster on the wall in the back.
I digress: I once argued that The Penguin was the most authentic spot in Charlotte, because in a city that was constantly trying to build the next, greatest thing, it was just a restaurant that wasn’t trying to be anything more than what it was. I’d also felt that way about Sir Edmond Halley’s at one point. Same with Taqueria Mexico on South Boulevard. Those are just my personal opinions, of course. But still, I liked going to those places and eating there because they felt low-key and lived-in. They felt like they needed my money, or my word-of-mouth crowing to friends. In the same way, an Applebee’s feels inauthentic, not because it’s a big chain restaurant, but because it decorates itself with local tchotchkies like high school football jerseys or framed pictures of nearby landmarks. Places that are actually authentic don’t have to prove it. They just are.
The Penguin’s authenticity came from Brian and Jimmy, whose goal at the beginning was to create a place that they would want to hang out, and the realization of that vision made their restaurant into something different in a city that was starting to feel homogeneous. For a long time, I thought of The Penguin as an authentically Charlotte place, but I think I’m wrong about that. Back in The Penguin days, authenticity in Charlotte was shorthand for something old in a city where everything was starting to feel new.
Now, the newness is the authenticity.
I moved to town in 2005, and since then, more than 200,000 people have moved there. That’s a quarter of the population who showed up, just in the last 14 years. What’s authentic to them? Who knows! But damn if businesses aren’t trying to figure that out, what with all of the yoga, and Instagrammable landmarks, and the breweries, and the axe clubs, and the Bobcat-abandonment. Collectively, they’ve remade what normal stands for in Charlotte. Yes, you can point to places like Brooks Sandwich Shop, or Moosehead on Montford, or Lupie’s, and get into a huff, and tell me that authentic Charlotte places do exist. But what is authenticity when there are so many people moving here so quickly from so many different states and countries? Something that was authentically Charlotte in 2000 was no longer authentic in 2010, and will no longer be authentic in 2020. Everybody shows up, thinking, you know what? This city would be great, if it only had (fill in the blank). And then, magically, (fill in the blank) materializes. In a city with endless choice, tradition and authenticity give way to convenience and customization. A lot of people would kill to live in a city like Charlotte. But it also means it’s impossible to say what authentic Charlotte is.
Plaza Midwood was once what the rest of Charlotte was not: a neighborhood where people came to escape the rest of the city, and The Penguin was the spring that fed the oasis. But then everybody who came wanted to stay, and apartments sprouted up to give them shelter, and new stores were built to give them convenience, and the price of everything went up, and parking spaces were harder to find, and a whole city loved The Penguin to death. Then they left its sign up as a grave stone, and all talked about how much cooler Plaza Midwood was when The Bird was there. Plaza Midwood was a shining example of what authentic Charlotte used to be. It’s also a shining example of what it is now.