Jimmy King and Brian Rowe, two of the operators who revived the Penguin in 2001 with Andy Kastanas, owner of Soul Gastrolounge in Plaza Midwood, and John Fuller, of the rock band Player/Kommander, reopened the Diamond Restaurant two months ago. This group owns the name and leases the space from retired restaurateur Jerry Pistiolis.
The Diamond Restaurant has been part of Plaza Midwood since opening in 1945, making it the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Mecklenburg County (runner-up Riverview Inn opened in 1946), and if calculated in restaurant years — a fraction of dog-year conversion — this establishment is effectively primordial. Its original name was The Diamond Soda Grill, but became a "meat and three" restaurant (a misnomer since this style of restaurant has for the past 30 years offered two sides) over 50 years ago. Then it was known for egg custard pie, a roster of 15 vegetables and chicken entrées: fried, baked or with dumplings.
With its latest reincarnation, the owners have opted to link the best of the past with current local tastes. Thus, the interior landscape is much the same, with 16 booths and an open bar area. What has changed is the revitalization of the dining room with retro 1950s wallpaper and bluer tones. The famous mixed crowd of Plaza Midwood is here: all stations in life, all ages. Babies are propped on tables in carriers, and older couples, who have been coming for decades, sit in an adjoining booth.
The T-shirted service crew is fast-moving and well-informed. The line at dinner forms quickly, but then the food comes out quickly, too. Obviously, this ownership team is used to a rush and keeps good service intact even on frenetic evenings.
If you are looking for fried pickles, you will find them, along with a variety of other fried foods, including heavily battered onion rings; fried okra; crispy in-house-made potato chips; fried oyster, catfish or calabash shrimp platters with hush puppies; deep-fried chicken livers; corn dogs; fried pork chops; the signature pig wings (deep-fried pork shanks on the starter list); and, of course, the ubiquitous Southern fried chicken. Not all is fried, though. On the roster are a series of salads, burgers, oven subs, souvaki, ribeye steak and spaghetti, among others. Vegetarian items are denoted on the menu, including a meatless "meatloaf" with soymilk mashed potatoes.
The first salvo of grub to hit our table included the predicable blizzard of fried foods (did you think I wouldn't have the fried pickles?). Among the "Neighborhood Classics," the piled high Big Blocker Burger — two patties totaling 12 ounces of ground Angus — hit all the right notes. The Full Blown Hemi, by the way, is three patties piled uneasily onto a bun. The fried chicken, on the other hand, lacked interior flavor. One happy constant is the still warm, oozing mac and cheese and the old-timey collards.
Longtime fans of the Diamond will seek the familiar: Gyros are still here. For others, the reward is a respectable iteration of classic dishes combined with a convivial ambiance and inexpensive prices: Burgers are $3.95 and most entrées with two sides are under $10. These factors will allow the Diamond Restaurant to improve its position to that of an iconic neighborhood restaurant for some time to come.