The Penguin Restaurant – Charlotte N.C.

Every once in a while, a spot gets a new lease on life. That’s just what’s happened to The Penguin Restaurant in Charlotte. A restaurant landmark in the heart of the Plaza-Midwood neighborhood for as long as most residents can remember, this modest restaurant served one and all since 1954, when Jimmy Ballentine opened the doors. The Penguin was famous for its late hours, cold beer, and reasonable prices.

When Mr. Ballentine finally retired in 1999, a new team took over the Plaza-Midwood mainstay. Brian Rowe, Jimmy King, and Greg Auten spent eight months renovating The Penguin. “Everybody else wanted to tear the place down,” says Auten, who handles the food end of the business. “We wanted to keep the feel of the place.” The partners preserved the original pine paneling, resurfaced the bar, returned the floor to a red and black checkerboard, but kept the essential layout intact. What they did not do is turn The Penguin into a “fern bar.” “We wanted to keep that workingman’s theme,” Auten says. No fancy microbews on tap. Big portions. Low prices. Great value in Plaza-Midwood. The partners did make a few innovations. The Penguin Restaurant now has a complete bar. The dining menu, while it still features the basic burgers, dogs, and fries, also offers a house-made Brunswick stew, a Ribeye sandwich (a steal at $5.95) and soy dogs and burgers for the vegetarian crowd. On any particular day, or night, you’ll find what Auten calls a “nice mix” of people enjoying a meal or a cold one. Businessmen lean on the bar, mixed in with a few of the “old-timers” and Plaza-Midwood residents. Punks with purple hair occupy a booth. A family of yuppies complete with baby stroller sits in the corner. The jukebox plays every kind of music – from doowop to country to new age to punk. The Penguin in Charlotte makes everyone feel welcome. That’s part of the tradition. The Plaza-Midwood neighborhood community has welcomed the reborn Penguin with open arms. Auten, who’s been in the restaurant business for 20 years, says, “We had people waiting for us to open. That just doesn’t happen.” At a Fourth of July bash, the neighborhood came out en masse to celebrate the return of The Penguin. The event was a blow-out success, and Auten and his partners plan similar events at Labor Day and other holidays. In particular, the new operators of The Penguin give thanks and credit to the Ballentine family for its wholehearted support. In a family with five daughters, these are “the boys” and they are serious about living up to the heritage left them by Jim Ballentine.


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