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Dish It Out

Eatery offers warm, neighborhood feel and good food, too

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Dish is a disarmingly unpretentious kind of joint you immediately warm to as though it were your mama's or grandma's kitchen. The menu is one you can afford with food you grew up on. Best of all, if you are lucky enough to live in this neighborhood, Dish is a place you can walk to, and walk into knowing you will see people you know.

This modest spot, which opened last July, is the restaurant debut of Tremont Music Hall owner Penny Craver and her Plaza Midwood neighbors and colleagues Lawrence Stubbs, who is general manager of Dish, and Marguerite McGee (Maggie McGee) Stubbs, the restaurant's chief financial officer.

"We fought for this location," says Craver. "We looked at other locations, but we wanted this spot on Thomas Avenue." All of the owners live in Plaza Midwood, an area that has become a unique urban setting in Charlotte and a neighborhood that has blossomed under individual entrepreneurship rather than the formula sameness of developers.

The building, which housed Ho Toy under several owners, Cafe DaDa, and Phat Burrito, has been transformed. Now it feels bigger and brighter. The dining area, with pale yellow walls, has more windows. The walls boast a collection of retro paint-by-number art, plates, hammered copper repousse pictures, fiber filled fabric art, and a mix of work from local artists. The smoking area in the back room is more subdued, but enlivened with colorful artwork. (Note, though that smoke slips out through the large hole in the connecting wall into the main dining room.) Says Craver, "The decorating was done by friends Hope Nicholls and Scott Weaver of Boris & Natasha and Melody Hoffman and Brigit Wyant from Tremont. We'd had the walls painted and they had been collecting. At 6 or 7 o'clock the night before we opened, they strolled in with the stuff."

On paper, Dish's familiar menu mimics a timeless Southern kitchen with tributes to Low Country, Cajun, and Tex-Mex cuisines. But unlike any bone-dry homage, this kitchen's take is a vast improvement on the original with food that is happily marked by a lively use of vegetables, agreeable side dishes, and a kitchen team with a penchant for smooth finishes. Behind the food is kitchen manager Lennox Gavin from Atlanta and Jamie Lynch. Brigit Wyant helms the desserts. Prices feel Southern too: honest and fair. Entrees run $6.95 for Chicken and Dumplings to $10.95 for a Grilled Rib-eye with roasted garlic mashed potatoes.

The Southern Delight Appetizer, enough for two to share, is a blend of new and old. Moroccan couscous spiked with black-eyed peas and herbs is surrounded by slices of fried green tomatoes, over-battered, but served with a crisp horseradish dill sauce in a plastic container, a deviled egg foursome with a healthy dose of paprika, and a hot biscuit. The latter is not made in the kitchen, but has almost the taste of the ones Southern grandmothers doled out to keep the children quiet at Sunday supper.

Entrees are impressive: a perfection of plump shrimp perched atop creamy stone ground grits, centered with wilted spinach. Slices of chicken and portobello fill a spinach herb tortilla for a delightful quesadilla accompanied by a fresh tomato salsa. A special of steamed mussels poised in a shallow pool of a white wine broth cost less than 10 bucks, but easily had over 40 mussels. How we longed for crusty bread to soak up the broth. Sides of collards embellished with smoky, dense and hearty black beans, and just plain good macaroni and cheese framed these entrees.

A concerted effort has been made by the folks at Dish to cater to vegetarians with such choices as a portobello and button mushroom burger, the vegetable pot pie, beans and greens, and black bean burrito entrees, the grilled polenta with wild mushrooms, spinach, and roasted garlic cream sauce appetizer, and a veggie plate for kids. The menu, which included sandwiches such as a sloppy roast beef Po boy, chicken salad, muffaletta and burgers, as well as soup and salads, is offered all day.

Those who cannot say goodnight without a sweet will want the strawberry shortcake, which is wonderfully swathed in fresh whipped cream. The chocolate pecan pie, on the other hand, was too sweet in my book.

Service at Dish is personal but not polished and the feeling of neighborhood among the customers is palpable. They are a cross section from Plaza Midwood: long time residents, young families, singles, professionals. One amusing take was watching a table of white haired older women discussing the menu with a multi- tattooed, crimson haired server. We're not in Kansas anymore.

It's hard to go wrong at Dish. With an easygoing, yet retro, atmosphere and simple, but satisfying Southern fare, Dish is the perfect neighborhood joint.

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