Now time for another story in our periodic series Block by Block, looking at how neighborhoods are changing, in big and small ways. A longtime fixture of Charlotte’s Plaza Midwood is closing this weekend. For nearly 40 years, John’s Country Kitchen has been a place where friends gathered at the counter to catch up over pancakes and a cup of coffee. A place where new friendships were forged and old ones were rekindled. The restaurant's owners are moving on to other things because the landlord of what’s become a prime space on Central Avenue is upping the rent. We recently stopped by on a busy morning and took a seat at the counter.
Co-owner Jimmy Margiotis is in front of the grill cooking eggs and greets everyone who comes in. He’s been at the restaurant nearly all his life. Jimmy’s father, John, started the place along with his mother in 1977.
“I started when I was 12 mopping, sweeping, and everything,” Jimmy says. “Then I started cooking about 13.”
Back then John’s Country Kitchen was cash only. Still is, actually. Jimmy says the credit and debit card fees aren’t worth the hassle. But for the last two years, it’s only been open for breakfast. The downsizing was part of an exit strategy when he learned the rent would be going up so much.
While sitting at the counter, Jimmy lays down a Country Kitchen specialty: pork brain and eggs.
“I used to eat them when I would work out years ago three times a week, with grits,” Jimmy says. “Mix it all together, it’s high protein. Well, high cholesterol, but it’s really good.”
While eating my brain and eggs at the counter, I meet Tracy Russ. Russ grew up in Plaza Midwood and is a longtime customer at John’s…
“Tomorrow is my 47th birthday,” he says. “I came here for the first time when I was 15, so that’s longer than I probably want to admit, but a long time.”
He describes John’s as a neighborhood hangout, a sort of breakfast place/community center. And he says the food’s always great.
“It just feels like coming home here,” he says. “It’s been such a part of the neighborhood for such a long time. So many things have changed around it, but it’s always been exactly as it is right now, which is cool and comforting and a good touchstone.”
Also at the counter, is another regular, Rick Wagoner. He says one of his favorite parts of John’s has been reconnecting with old friends.
“There are times I hadn’t seen a guy in 20 years and we’d be sitting next to each other and discovered halfway through the meal because Jimmy would introduce us like we didn’t know each other,” he says. “And you talk to people, you give them a card, you get business. You get friends, you make friends out of those business connections.”
Rick says regulars at the counter have their own name for the place: it’s Cheers without the beers. Though Tracy and Rick are sad to see John’s go, they understand why the landlord is raising the rent. And so does owner Jimmy. It’s just business. The hot real-estate market of Plaza Midwood today is a far cry from when the restaurant started in the '70s.
“It was little bit dangerous, you know,” Jimmy says. “It was drug infested. But now all that’s all gone, as time goes on as the neighborhood was changing. It was for the better. Now, it’s really hopping now.”
Jimmy is proud to have carried on his dad’s legacy. At John’s Country Kitchen he says you weren’t just a customer. You were treated like family.
“Like being at your house, that you’re not another number,” Jimmy says. “We always want to treat everybody that their special. And I think that’s what a lot of people like about that.”
It’s a way of doing business Jimmy says he’s carrying over to his new restaurant, the Rusty Onion in south Charlotte. And the walls there are being decorated with memorabilia from John’s Country Kitchen.