By now you’ve probably read about the new Penguin. The sparkly chairs, the state of the fried pickles, the souvenir promo cups. You may have even eaten there already, or principle kept you away. Today, curiosity got the best of me. I wish it hadn’t.
The changes are small. So small that they shouldn’t bother me. It’s no big deal the counter by the door is gone, three extra tables in its place. Likewise, the refillable diner ketchup and mustard bottles being replaced by the same grocery store disposables that people keep in their fridges doesn’t matter much. In the grand scheme of things, the old Budweiser Clydesdale sign above the jukebox being swapped for an antique cash register isn’t a reason not to come back. The framed newspaper clippings instead of local award plaques, the penguin merch pinned up by the classic “BARBECUE” bother me more. If I had to pin-down the main source of my dislike, I’d like to stick it on the careful corporate wit of the new menu items. The “single successful guy”, “I can hear you getting fatter”? The salads. I could declare that I can’t love a Penguin without cheerwine bottles, $5 pitchers of beer, and people camped out at the bar.
But then again, the kitchen is more open. Light pours in the windows allowing a view of Thomas Street. There are only five posters taped up by the bar, the shows they’re advertising seem tame, normal. The speakers are playing oldies. The tables are full. The food still comes out like it always has, hot and cheap. I can actually hear my boyfriend talking to me from across the table. We don’t smell like grease when we leave. And I get it. I see why they changed it, and why people will like it. Everything is as polished and straight as the flat-ironed brown hair of the three pleasant but forgettable waitresses.
So why can’t I reconcile the good with the bad? Or should I really be asking, why are some places special and others aren’t?
My boyfriend thinks it’s the food. It’s not as good, he says. It’s nothing special, like a burger from a food truck, a state fair. I don’t think it’s that different. No better or worse than a growing list of competitors. If it is, the changes on this level are imperceptible. The pickles are still oily and salty, the burgers still juicy, the buns still un-toasted. But that’s not why we came here, is it?
It takes a kind of magic, a mix between atmosphere and food to create a restaurant like the old Penguin. That’s why we like dives. And that’s how places like Cheescake Factory and IHOP stay in business. Is it delicious, is it comfortable, is it cheap or appropriately expensive, is it all of the above? Or, is it ours? There’s a reason we don’t eat in plain white boxes, why we feel affection for both gas-station pulled pork and chicken curry in candle-light. There’s no great gap in culinary mastery separating this Penguin from Pinkys. But the food tastes better there, doesn’t it, wrapped in a great building, a new neighborhood, a story we can get behind?
I think we never did go to the Penguin because of the food, in spite of the atmosphere. I think we went for the atmosphere and stayed for the food. We liked our conversation drowned out by music, our pint glasses full, the cloves we shared in the parking lot. We went for the experience, the kind of night it made. The presence of decent burgers and thick sweet potato fries aren’t going to be enough to keep us coming back. And so, my boyfriend might be right after all. It does have something to do with flavor, spice, taste. Key ingredients missing.