Lying on my couch, flipping through TV channels in my dimly lit living room a few years ago, I stumbled across an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network. "Hey, I know that place!" went through my head as celebrity chef Guy Fieri walked into Charlotte's Dish restaurant. It was cool to see a national television show in a local neighborhood, and at a place I was familiar with.
As Fieri and the chef walked through the process of making the restaurant's signature salmon patties, my mouth started to water. I'm not a big fan of salmon, but damn, did they look good. Weeks later at Dish, I ordered the entrée without looking at the menu. I still have days when I crave those salmon patties, and have a TV show to thank for the introduction.
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, or DDD as it's also known, has garnered a cult following of sorts. People organize vacations around DDD-featured restaurants. Even my brother has downloaded an app that will point out locations so he can make off-the-beaten-path stops while traveling.
First airing in November 2006, DDD's concept is simple. Guy Fieri travels around the country stopping in a variety of diners, drive-ins, dives, neighborhood spots and interesting places to sample unique foods and flavors. The enthusiastic host — known for the frosted, spiky hair and sunglasses on the back of his head — has featured more than a dozen Queen City locations over the years.
"Charlotte has been one of the better markets for them," says Greg Auten, the owner of Pinky's Westside Grill and two-time guest on the show. "They stayed away for three or four years because they had done so many."
Now, they're back. On May 1, DDD featured Pinky's along with Pit Road Bar & Grill and the Tin Kitchen food truck. Krazy Fish, Mert's Heart and Soul, 300 East and Intermezzo Pizzeria are scheduled for episodes in the coming weeks.
"There are those foodies out there who like what he does and how he presents it," Auten says. "They come to Pinky's, eat and talk to me and ask me to sign something. The first time [when The Penguin was featured] we went from a burger joint to having people take pictures of me."
Though restaurants often have to close for two days to accommodate filming, the loss of business is well worth it once the episodes air. Some places have had lines out the door, while others feel the after-effects years later when a show is rebroadcast. Auten and Dish owner Penny Craver both tell me they often hear people say, "I saw you on TV last night."
As Auten notes, having your restaurant featured on an internationally seen television program is "advertising you can't afford." Charlotte may not have any James Beard Awards to its name, but that doesn't mean there aren't a dozen or so restaurants that are helping to put the Queen City on the map.
To see how the show has affected area eateries, we contacted a handful of featured spots to hear about their experiences, the impact the show had or what they might expect once their episode airs.
Knowing my brother's love of DDD spots, I quickly suggested Dish one night when he and his wife were in town for a Black Crowes concert. As we walked in and were guided toward a table in the back room, I pointed out the spray-painted Guy Fieri symbol on one of the paintings — he leaves his mark on every location he visits. While perusing the menu, I told them everything I've eaten there is tasty, but it was the salmon patties featured on the show that hooked me.
The original episode featuring Dish aired in 2010, but the restaurant has seen an influx of people ever since. Even five years later, Craver says people still mention DDD to her as if it was taped last week.
"It doesn't look dated, so people think they were just here filming it," she says. "We had a 90-year-old man mention it, and two 4-year-olds dressed with visors and spiky wigs like Guy Fieri. A few months ago, someone came in and told us we were his 129th DDD spot that he's been to. He told us we were in his top five, too."
Plaza Midwood's home for Southern comfort food, Dish opened in the summer of 2002. While the eight-minute segment featured Dish's chicken and dumplings and salmon patties, Craver would have liked them to feature the Burrito Del Sur — it's got collard greens, pinto beans or black eyed peas and sweet potatoes.
Craver remembers when the show came in to tape the episode — it was Halloween 2009. They had to remove all of the decorations, and close on a Friday, which wasn't ideal for business. The aftermath, however, quickly overshadowed any hassle and lost income.
"There were a few Saturday nights that we couldn't make the food as fast as we could sell it," she says. "We had to close early a few times because we ran out of food. For a few weeks, it was gangbusters. Every time the episode re-airs, we get a bump in business."
Pinky's Westside Grill
Pinky's Auten has the proud distinction of being the first person featured on two episodes of DDD at two different restaurants. He first appeared during a 2007 episode that featured the now-closed Penguin Drive-In. Auten has kept in touch with Fieri over the years, which could be part of the reason his new establishment, Pinky's Westside Grill, was picked when the crew returned to Charlotte.
"[The new episode] aired on a Friday and the next day was mostly new people," Auten says. "That show goes everywhere. Even here, we get busy when the Penguin episode airs. I don't know anyone who's been affected negatively by the show. Back at the Penguin, some of our regulars got mad when they couldn't get in because we were so busy."
Pinky's opened in November 2010 and features some of the same style of food as the Penguin — burgers, sandwiches, fried pickles, but a whole lot more, too. "I didn't want this to be a burger place, but the customers have kind of pushed it that way," Auten says. "For the show, I wanted to feature the White Trash Burger, but they thought some people might be offended by the name."
Instead, Fieri and NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer tried out Pinky's Triple-G Burger, Corndog Shrimp and Asian Pork Burger. "The Asian Pork Burger is more of a special, but we might have to put it on the menu now," Auten says. "If people love my burgers, things could be worse. I really didn't want to do fried pickles here, but people demanded it."
This time around, Pinky's closed while the episode was being filmed. Auten says the Penguin remained open during its taping. "It's crazy how efficient it's gotten. They know exactly what they want you to do. It's a whole different ballgame."
Pit Road Bar & Grill
Victory Lane Karting has been open for 15 years, but it wasn't until about 15 months ago that a restaurant was added to the north Charlotte business park location. Pit Road Bar & Grill steps up the typical grilled fare thanks to a bevy of homemade sauces and marinades. The Concord, one of the items featured on DDD, takes a filet sandwich and adds fig preserves and blue cheese. The Hot Lap, also featured, has chicken marinated in Bloody Mary mix and covered in cheese and jalapeño cilantro crème sauce. Thanks to the May 1 episode, more people will now know where to get those delicious dishes.
For years, Victory Lane only featured chips, candy and sodas, but opening up the restaurant has added a new dimension to the business, which is just a glass partition away from the racetrack. People come to race go-karts and stay to eat, or eat and decide to race afterward.
Chef Donnie Simmons incorporates a lot of the flavors he grew up on in order to figure out ways to put a twist on familiar items. His grandfather made fig preserves, which adds a sweetness to the aforementioned aged filet sandwich. Simmons has also created Moon Pie Sliders — that would be a burger in the middle of a Moon Pie with RC-cola soaked bacon.
"We've seen a steady increase of customers since the show aired," Victory Lane partner Ed Bradford says. "The DDD crew had their wrap party here and a bunch of the Panthers came in recently. We get a lot of traffic during race weekends, so I expect it to be even more here in a couple weeks. We've heard about the 'Fieri effect' that happens to restaurants that are on the show."
"A lot of people will come in and share, so they can try what they saw on the show," Simmons says. "When a group of Panthers came in with their wives and girlfriends, they ordered 19 Hot Laps."
When your location changes daily, being closed for two days can have a deep impact on your business. But according to food truck Tin Kitchen co-owner David Stuck, sales jumped roughly 35 percent the week after the episode aired.
"We set a record for sales every day," Stuck says. The truck is at a different location each day of the week — but the same location from week to week — the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Tuesdays, SouthPark Eats Alternative on Wednesdays, Food Truck Fridays, etc. "Wednesday sales were up 50 percent based on our average. It's tapered down a bit since then, but it's still noticeable."
Stuck wanted to feature his signature pork belly dish on the show, but the decision was up to Fieri. "He's had pork belly so many times over the years, he wanted something unique to us, which makes sense," Stuck says. Buffalo Cauliflower Sliders and Chana Masala Tacos were the featured items on the episode.
The biggest surprise to Stuck was the meticulous nature of the show. The crew had a member whose sole job was to make sure everything was in the same location each day. "If I put a spoon down in the wrong spot, he'd tell me it had to go two inches more to the left," Stuck says. Everything needs to be precise to provide for seamless editing in post-production. "They knew the order of the ingredients as well as I do, and it's my recipe."
Step into Krazy Fish and you immediately feel like you're in another world — down by the sea. A nautical theme is the order of the day, but it's not the sea shanty you might expect. Sure, there's a marlin mounted on the wall, but there's also a mannequin mermaid and a blowfish made from a basketball and nails — and all of it's been donated by friends and customers. You'll undoubtedly find something new that catches your eye each time you walk through the door.
With the restaurant's episode yet to air, manager Venus Morales is simply happy to help represent Plaza Midwood and get some national exposure. Restaurants get on the show by being nominated. After that, show producers contact various places to get a list of dishes to be considered and recipes to look over. The restaurant is later contacted and told which dishes Fieri is interested in trying. One day is spent filming the recipes without Fieri present in order to get detail shots of the process; the second day features Fieri and the tastings, commentary, etc.
"He wanted to try the Gumbo and Seafood Diablo," Morales says. "He looks for a twist on a dish and we use cactus instead of okra in our gumbo. He said, 'I've never had a gumbo with cactus.' In our Seafood Diablo, we use a cream base and turmeric instead of a tomato base and red chili flakes. He liked that we were using a spice he's familiar with in a way he wasn't familiar with."
Morales says her only expectation is to get the word out about Krazy Fish, which has been open for about six years. "We've been in business as long as we have only through word of mouth," she says. "We're not trying to be a five-star place, so it's OK if people think of us as a 'dive.' We're a casual neighborhood spot. We own it."TV Host Guy Fieri has family ties to North Carolina, so perhaps that's part of the reason his show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives returns to Charlotte often. Here's a list of the places he's visited in Charlotte.
300 East Blvd.
2900 Wilkinson Blvd.
Cabo Fish Taco
3201 N. Davidson St.
1220 Thomas Ave.
1427 E. 10th St.
Jake's Good Eats
12721 Albemarle Road
2501 Central Ave.
Landmark Restaurant Diner
4429 Central Ave.
Mert's Heart & Soul
214 N. College St.
Pinky's Westside Grill
1600 W. Morehead St.
Pit Road Bar & Grill
2330 Tipton Dr.
South 21 Drive-In
3101 E. Independence Blvd.
Tin Kitchen (food truck)