Big View Diner rises from the corner of a busy intersection in south Charlotte. You can't miss it: The building sprouts protruding angles reminiscent of the extreme architectural style which dominated the fast-casual restaurant landscape for several decades before coming to an abrupt end in the 1980s. Even the casual script font of the logo becomes a welcoming beacon at night.
"We wanted a 1970s contemporary feel with a Vegas look," says chef and entrepreneur Stratos Lambros. Big View Diner is the latest restaurant in the Stratos Restaurant Group (Ilios Noche and Nolen Kitchen), a canny venture of Stratos Lambros and brothers Angelo and Frank Kaltsounis. All partners are of Greek descent and from restaurant families. Lambros' father operated many restaurants in the New York City area including the Munch Time Diner -- the inspiration for Big View -- in the Bronx. The Kaltsounis family owns the Landmark Diner on Central Avenue in Charlotte. Angelo Kaltsounis and Lambros were roommates at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park while younger brother Frank Kaltsounis trained in Pastry Arts at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan.
The 300-seat Big View is big. Inside, the color palate and various props give the rooms that reasonably priced, food emporium feel. Comfy booths range in size from an all-in-the-family round to a four-tab rectangle. The best seats, however, are the custom designed upholstered mounted bar stools lining the curved counter bar. Overhead large string pendant lights flash unpredictable patterns on the walls. (Remember making objects like these with inflated balloons wrapped with a starchy string for school?) Modern wall tile mosaics evoke timeless diner scenes while period music and kitchen noise provide the expected backdrop sound.
Also familiar is the mainstay of any decent diner: an owner circulating the room, joking with the customers. In this case, the man is Tommy Kaltsounis, father of Angelo and Frank, who sold part of his ownership in Landmark, and is now making the rounds at Big View.
The menu encompasses a universe of comfort food. These big plates may have an even bigger calorie count, but who, in these tenuous times, seeks comfort in a salad? On the menu are beef brisket, meatloaf, chicken parmigiana, fried seafood, sandwiches and burgers.
What kind of food is offered at the spiffy new outpost of Greek American diner food? My observation, in short: reasonably priced, solidly prepared. The freshly ground 8-ounce burger is neatly constructed with a taste close to perfection -- but don't go for the hickory barbecue burger unless you like meat muffled by sauce. The updated appetizer roster outshines the mundane ones. The two mini chili kosher dogs are fun while the chipotle chicken quesadilla, with cool pico de gallo, is aggressively flavored. The onion rings, however, are heavily fettered and accompanied by even less likable sidekicks: ranch dressing and steak sauce.
To be expected, the gargantuan Greek salad blossomed with freshness. The updated meatloaf is competent, but the main attraction is that amidst all this fried and caloric laden food are remarkably fresh vegetables. Green beans still taste like beans and have texture: That's newsworthy when found in a diner. The fries, on the other hand, a diner standard, are salty, greasy and limp.
Big View excels in its finale, Frank Kaltsounis' domain. To the right of the entrance is the bakery where bread, cakes, pastries and ice cream is made daily. Among the eight milkshakes -- vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, toasted coconut, peanut butter banana, peaches and cream, chocolate covered strawberry and apple pie -- the latter is a wondrous affair with house-made vanilla ice cream and bits of freshly made apple pie. Beyond shakes are sundaes, pies, a chocolate layer cake, cheesecakes, puddings, and pastries.
Big View's prices for lunch entrées range from $8 to $14; at dinner, $9 for a pasta dish to $21 for crab cakes. Burgers are $8 to $10.
"A great diner becomes an institution for years and years and years," notes Lambros. Thus, Big View Diner has a lot on its plate: the expectations of all those who grew up in diners and then moved here; expectations of fans of Ilios Noche and Nolen Kitchen; expectations of those who watched the construction daily (and are still waiting for breakfast, which is now slated to open midsummer); and the expectations of the owners. Whew. But I will guarantee this: Nothing beats the taste, simplicity, and future nostalgia of a generous wedge of Frank's apple pie at Big View's counter.
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Complete racist. Totally obvious, so sad, he ruins an otherwise great show.