The Penguin's Sign Comes Down: 'There's A Lot Wrapped Up In One Simple, Little Plastic Sign'
A sign was removed in Plaza Midwood on Friday. Normally that would not be big news. Buildings and signs in Charlotte go up and down regularly, a reflection of the rapid growth and development in the area.
But the sign for the Penguin, a restaurant that has been closed since 2014, was taken down from the corner of Thomas and Commonwealth avenues, and it is meaningful for so many different reasons.
It’s emblematic of the city’s eternal conflict between celebrating history and reveling in progress, of the fight between remaining independent in the face of success, of the struggle to keep affordable housing in areas where people want to live.
And even of the quest to find some really good fried pickles and pimento cheese.
“There's a lot wrapped up in one simple, little plastic sign that somebody just kind of left up on a corner for seven years,” said journalist Jeremy Markovich.
Markovich first wrote about the Penguin 10 years ago, and he unofficially has been on the The Penguin Beat ever since. He broke the news Wednesday that FS Food Group, the new owners of the place that once housed the Penguin, will take down the sign Friday at 3:30 p.m. That building now is home to Latin café Calle Sol, and the man who bought the naming rights to the Penguin years ago plans to open a new version on East Boulevard.
Having the old sign still up could cause confusion.
“It’s time for it to come down,” said Jimmy King. “I mean, that place has been gone. It’s done. It’s bittersweet.”
King and Brian Rowe are the ones who put the Penguin on the map after they opened their version of the restaurant in 2000. They turned it from a run-down dive that first opened in 1954 to a revered neighborhood hangout joint where everyone gathered.
The Plaza Midwood neighborhood changed as the Penguin gained popularity, too. It transformed from a rough and gritty area — King calls it “nasty” — to a haven for artists and musicians.
“The whole neighborhood kind of transformed,” King said. “I mean, there was nothing really there. And once we did that (opened the Penguin), people started coming. And the artists started coming. The music started coming. And everything changed.
“And what baffles me is, is everybody wants to come there because it's cool, but then when they get there, they want to change it. And then when they change it, it's exactly where they came from.”
A huge kickstart to that transformation came in 2007 when Guy Fieri filmed an episode of his first season of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” on the Food Network at the Penguin. Suddenly, everyone wanted to try the fried pickles. Everyone wanted to eat the pimento cheese fries that weren’t on the menu but you knew to order anyway.
“And then once the secret got out, then the neighborhood changed to be much different than the place that people had sort of come to recognize and love,” Markovich said.
“I don't want to say it’s all Guy Fieri’s fault,” he added, laughing, “but if you’re looking for the person who ruined Plaza Midwood …”
After Fieri visited, so did fans from all over the region and country. And in 2008, a man named Martin Sprock offered to franchise the Penguin. It turned into a messy ordeal when it came to light that King and Rowe were merely leasing the building and name from the original owners.
In 2010, King and Rowe left. By 2014, the restaurant had closed.
“I don't say it got too big, too fast, but it got so big that everybody wanted a piece of it,” King said. “And what was ours, overnight, pretty much, it was not ours anymore.”
But the sign has remained ever since, even as three new restaurants have cycled through the building. The neighborhood has changed, too. Large apartment buildings have sprouted everywhere, and homes nearby sell for half a million dollars and more.
And now, the sign is gone, too. That matters, Markovich says.
“People care about it because I think that was like an emblem of what that neighborhood was,” Markovich said.” And there's a whole story contained in that sign in some way. People are ascribing a lot of meaning to that sign.”
The 7-foot-tall sign had a “removal ceremony” and was presented to the Plaza Midwood Neighborhood Association. One panel will be put on display at Midwood Park and another will be given to the Charlotte Museum of History.
After several days of thinking and answering questions about the Penguin, King didn’t come to the official sign removal. He said his goodbyes years ago, and he’s happy it’s found a good home.
“It played a big part in Charlotte,” he said. “It played a huge part in Plaza Midwood and, you know, changed people's lives. So if that's where it needs to be, that's where it needs to be.”
And he understands why it still matters to so many.