Sometimes, when I send people to Brooks’ Sandwich House, I feel the need to give them a heads-up. It doesn’t look like much – just a little red cinder-block box. You’ll probably have to wait. There’s nowhere to sit. But none of that matters. It’s worth it.
It has been worth it since 1973, when C.T. Brooks opened the place in what used to be called North Charlotte before somebody gave it the trendy name of NoDa. It has stayed the same while the area around it changed from an old mill village to Charlotte’s coolest neighborhood, with live music and tattoo places and late-night doughnuts. Through all of those changes, there was C.T. Brooks, and then his twin sons Scott and David, selling burgers with slaw and cheese and the Brooks’ secret recipe chili.
You probably know by now that Scott Brooks was shot and killed last Monday when he went to open the restaurant at 5 in the morning. He was the 104th homicide victim in Charlotte this year, and every one of them was one of God’s children and worthy of our mourning.
But Scott Brooks’ death drew days of coverage from local media, and a vigil that led hundreds of people to gather and mourn. I think, at least in part, it’s because of what he and his place stood for.
Years ago, after Charlotte announced it was building the light-rail line through NoDa, I stopped in at Brooks’. Their property is a corner lot right across the street from where the light rail was coming through. Scott and David were wondering if they should sell. They could have cashed in for a windfall. Instead they decided to stick around and make a living one $4 burger at a time.
Of course, had they sold, Scott Brooks might be alive right now, and that’s a sad thing to think about. But I think the reason his death hit so hard is that it reminds us how an authentic place is so rare and special in this city.
Brooks’ is the most diverse place I’ve been in Charlotte. It crosses every line of race and class. You’re liable to run into a banker, a City Council member, a truck driver, a nurse, all crowded in line together. If you’ve got a few dollars and an appetite, you’re welcome.
That trust came through by putting in the time. There’s a great little short film on Brooks’ made by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Some of the shots are from inside the kitchen and you can see the old flattop grill. The backsplash is streaked with the greasy smoke of hundreds of thousands of burgers. It feels like you could cut into it like a redwood and count the rings.
These days Charlotte has a lot of restaurants and bars and coffeeshops that are built to look like they’ve been around forever. They move into old buildings, leave the brick exposed, serve their food on yard-sale plates and their $12 cocktails in Mason jars. Some of these places are really good. But I wonder how many are going to be around in 40 years.
You can’t buy the patina on that old flattop grill. You can’t fake it, either. It’s a history you have to build by anchoring yourself in a place. Scott Brooks’ death reminds us how much it means to come across something real and lasting. And how fast it can be taken away.
Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at firstname.lastname@example.org.