When it was completed in the late 1920s, Wilkinson Boulevard became the Carolinas' first four-lane highway. Stretching from Gastonia to Charlotte, it was an important thoroughfare when the Charlotte Municipal Airport opened in 1935. Two decades later, the airport was renamed Douglas Municipal Airport after former Charlotte mayor Ben Douglas, Sr., and Wilkinson Boulevard was one of the most talked-about and traveled streets around.
In those days, folks from the Charlotte area didn't have a whole lot of "world class" stuff to brag about, but they did have a big airport. You might have lived in By-God Charlotte, NC, but a few layovers later, you could be most anywhere in the world. Thus, the areas around the airport, and in particular Wilkinson Boulevard, grew quickly.
Within 20 years, the City of Charlotte caught up with its fancy Wilkinson Boulevard, and folks now had interstate highways and other options to and from the airport and Gastonia. That's when warehouses and economy motels sprung up along the boulevard, and the street soon became known as the Place To Be if you were in the market for prostitutes and pornography. During his recent Charlotte appearance, comedian Dave Chappelle announced that he'd be appearing at an after party on Wilkinson Boulevard. Fans booed lustily. Chappelle responded that he'd never ever been booed for saying the name of a street before.
I figured I'd attempt to pump a little pride back into the Thoroughfare that Time Forgot. After all, Wilkinson Boulevard has a history of fine eating establishments, and here are four that have stood the test of time, (and taste), along with all the slings and arrows that come with it.
Barbecue King: Located at 2900 Wilkinson, Barbecue King (no "the") is hard to miss, thanks to the giant pink and blue neon sign. A nod to 1960s car culture, the King was perfectly positioned to catch young folks out on the prowl, and the food was good enough to keep them coming back well into adulthood. Since Pete Gianakas took over the place in 1972 (he'd worked there since 1961), he's seen many generations return to enjoy the restaurant's signature barbecue sandwiches and other diner-style fried foods. So the next time you have to pick up someone from the airport, stop by Barbecue King and get yourself a barbecue sandwich and fries. Restaurants don't stay open 40-plus years without perfecting a few items.
The Copal Grill: Near the airport at 5923 Wilkinson, the Copal Grill is known for a few things, not the least of which is their signature turkey and dressing, available even in those seven or eight months a year with no college or professional football. Also a popular morning destination for folks who know where a good, quick breakfast can be found, the Cope also boasts popular steak and prime rim specials on Thursdays and Fridays. Opened in 1948 by Mike Hunter and Gene Galenge, the Copal Grill was initially geared to truck drivers and people entering Charlotte from the ever-growing municipal airport. After sweating potential relocation for years over a proposed bridge leading to the airport, it now looks like the restaurant, God willing, will be with us for some time to come. For those 30-plus-year veterans of the Cope -- both those on staff and regular customers -- that news ranks up there with the fried squash. That is, wonderful.
The Ranch House: A restaurant old in the tooth but still young where the taste buds are concerned, the Ranch House, like South Boulevard favorite Beef & Bottle, features old-skool dark wood paneling, red naugahyde booth seats and lighting so dim you'd think you were an extra in a film noir. Featuring a nice old bar that wouldn't seem out of place in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown and wagon wheel chandeliers, the whole vibe could come across as hokey were it not for two things: the cooked-to-order Fred Flintstone-sized steaks (Black Angus T-bone, filet mignon) and Charlotte's best shrimp cocktail, featuring fiery horseradish that's ground fresh daily. Get the iceberg salad with fresh blue cheese and an icy-cold beer, and you have one of the greatest steak dinners to be had in town -- Morton's included, (and for a third of the price).
Dairy Queen: No mention of Wilkinson Boulevard eateries can be made without a nod to the legendary DQ, the oldest in the state and one of the oldest in the country. Like Barbecue King, this DQ was covered in neon to attract the automobile enthusiast. Constructed in 1947 by franchise operator Preston Aaron, the popular hangout still boasts the original (if repainted) Eskimo-with-ice-cream sign display, an enigmatic Art Deco architectural style and some of the best frozen treats around.
There's a moral in here: reputations can be gained and lost, and gained again, all due to the way you choose to look at something. Where once something was "can't miss" because you drove by it every third day, 40 years later it can retain that title for an entirely different reason: for the simple fact that it still exists at all.
Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor with Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, the Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site www.egullet.com. He may be contacted at [email protected].