It’s with a heavy heart and a hungry belly I write to inform you The Penguin Drive-in, age 60 of Charlotte, North Carolina, has died. The Bird had been unresponsive and on life support since last August.
The Penguin was born in 1954 when a decorated WWII veteran named Jim Ballentine and his wife bought a small ice cream shop on the corner of Commonwealth and Thomas streets. They named it The Penguin, expanded it to serve food and beer, and all of Charlotte came to eat. Through the 1960s, hippies and businessmen alike flocked to The Bird for burgers and at one point the restaurant sold more beer than anywhere else in the Southeast region.
The Penguin stood strong during the following decades despite neighborhood decay, and lived to see Plaza Midwood transform into the eclectic enclave it is today. But it was battered and bruised. The Ballentines retired from the The Penguin in 1999, passing the torch to Brian Rowe and Jimmy King, who gave it some much-needed TLC and cosmetic surgery. Under the ownership of Rowe and King, The Penguin flourished spectacularly.
For the next decade, there were lines out the door every day. It was heralded by many as Charlotte’s Best Restaurant. Couples met and were married there; it was featured on a popular TV show. It became more popular than ever before, more than a Charlotte institution. It became an icon.
The Ballentines decided they could duplicate The Penguin’s success elsewhere by franchising it. Lisa Ballentine, Jim’s daughter, was put in charge. Rowe and King were forced out, and customers were outraged. The pair left the Bird on Oct. 24, 2010, and they took with them its lifeblood — the neighborhood.
The Penguin struggled to stand alone without the support of its surrounding community. The Ballentines’ franchise deal fell through, and the Penguin became terminally ill. Lisa Ballentine’s attempts to ward off the Bird’s death through bankruptcy failed. Hit with an eviction notice and power disconnection, a silent darkness fell over it, and it slipped into a coma in early August. On Monday, Ballentine agreed to pull the plug and officially end The Penguin’s life.
It’s survived by its neighbor The Diamond, Rowe and King’s highly successful post-Penguin venture; and its former betrothed, Pinky’s Westside Grill, which was once planned to be called The Penguin Westside.
No funeral arrangements have been made as of yet.