Friday, July 15, 2011

Night review: Revisiting the Penguin

Posted By on Fri, Jul 15, 2011 at 12:31 PM

I have a confession to make: The recent Penguin drama did not have a big impact on my life.

I did not join the Facebook page calling for a boycott. I didn’t participate in very many conversations about the issue, either in person or online. And once I heard about the current, now previous, owners’ plans to open up around the corner at The Diamond, I even secretly thought it might be nice to have the crowd split between the two camps. At least then getting a table on a Friday night wouldn’t be such an ordeal.

In case you don’t already know the story, allow me sum up the situation.

Ten years ago, Brian Rowe and Jimmy King took over ownership of the Penguin, signing two five-year lease agreements. They redid the restaurant, which first opened in 1954. The pair built the Penguin into such a successful restaurant that it was featured on the Food Network’s “Diner’s, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and it was not unusual to wait half an hour or more for a table at 10 o’clock on a Thursday night.

Original owners, the Ballentine family, decided against renewing King and Rowe’s lease, instead offering a deal the two found unacceptable. Since the Ballentines retained ownership of both the building and the name, King and Rowe were left with, in their words, no other option but to leave and begin anew somewhere else. Thus was reborn the Diamond.

As a fan of the old Penguin, I did have some concerns that the new version would be lacking. The Ballentines made clear their plans to redo the place a bit and make it fit for franchising (read: mass consumption). Still, surely they would not tinker too much with a beloved institution.

The first thing I noticed was how much brighter it was in the new Penguin. All the better to see my fellow dining companions, who were much different than I remembered. They had all turned into well-scrubbed families and high school kids with neat haircuts and nice smiles.

I was right about one thing though: It was much easier to get a table. Granted, it was around 8:30 on a Monday night, but that would have meant a full house at the old Penguin.

After ordering — a Fat Tire, a blue cheese burger and a side of sweet potato fries — I went to check out the jukebox. The Penguin always had one of the best jukeboxes in the city.

I’d like to give you a quick rundown of what’s on the new jukebox ... but I can’t, as the menu button was broken and only showed one album: a Bryan Adams greatest hits compilation. Not a good sign, unless you’re into terrible music. I, sadly, am not.

I noticed someone had put money in without making any song selections — apparently not a Bryan Adams fan either — so I took the opportunity to punch in random numbers to get a random sampling. As it turned out, I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs that followed and have no interest in finding out the particulars.

When I tried to get a second Fat Tire, I was informed the keg was now empty. So I ordered one of the other beers on tap and was told that too had just gone out. That left one beer on tap, but I decided to quit while I was far enough behind.

The only part of Penguin that I didn't find depressing that night was, sadly, the bathroom. It was the only part that hadn’t changed.

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