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Counter spot brings back 50s feel

The corner drugstore has blasted its way back into Charlotte. Most intersections now seem to have at least one, if not competing, chain drugstores. But in the days before these chains existed, there were the locally owned corner drugstores a la It's A Wonderful Life. One of the draws of these drugstores was their counter service.

One of the first popular items served at these drugstores was ice cream. This creamy indulgence was a luxury item in the pre-refrigerator days of the late 1800s but soon became the starring player at the soda fountain counter. Behind the counter stood a skillful white-shirted soda jerk at the ready, who was equally capable of producing drinks, shakes and ice cream dishes. The original soda fountain shops had marble counter tops, twirly stools and a large mirror backsplash somewhat obscured by posted advertisements, hot fudge containers and canisters of syrup. By the mid-1900s, many of these soda fountains in Southern drugstores had been converted into lunch counters and had grills and griddles added.

Hardly any of these original soda fountain counters remain in Charlotte. For instance, all that's left of the Park Road Pharmacy lunch counter (located on Providence Road in Myers Park) and their legendary pimento cheese sandwiches is the small black and white checkered tile flooring that Salute's Ristorante chose to keep.

One counter spot that does remain is Luv B's Café on Shamrock Road, across the street from Shamrock Garden Elementary School. This bit of Americana, in an area of town with that gritty fringe feel, occupies what was once Pike's Soda Shop, which has since moved to SouthEnd (Pike's also has another store in Birkdale).

Owners Judy and Rich Baillieux opened Luv B's in March of 2001. Daughter Michelle is typically on hand to see her regular customers, produce the daily specials and man the grill.

Luv B has the prerequisite marble counter top, a not-so-shiny brass foot rest and the small tiled black and white flooring. One sign on the wall reads, hot dog and coke 15¢. The wall behind the counter has 1950s memorabilia with records and jacket covers and Grease-like paraphernalia. Only the Wurlitzer is AWOL. The Café seats about 24.

The menu of wholesome hearty comfort food is a combination of old-styled soda fountain, lunch counter and blue plate special diner. While many patrons come for the daily specials such as barbecue or meatloaf with a choice of two sides, the burger is the most popular item. Baillieux excels in these loosely formed Angus burgers. The Southern "all the way" burger is topped with flavorful house-made chili, mustard and crunchy slaw, while the Northern has lettuce, tomatoes and onions.

Hot dogs are another strong suit, especially the foot-long. Less spectacular were the onion rings imprisoned by a thick batter. These are the kind of rings in which you can remove the strips of onion, yet the casing stays whole. I prefer flakier rings. The French fries, on the other hand, are hand cut in house and are much better.

Orangeade is to North Carolina what an Egg Cream is to New York. At the counter, you can watch as oranges are freshly squeezed. The juice is then poured over ice, given a shot of syrup and completed with carbonated soda.

But the main attraction here are the eight flavors of Hershey's Ice Cream and the extra-thick shakes made from this ice cream. The server is quick to confess that she loves to make shakes. "Especially pineapple and peanut butter," she reports. "They don't sound good, but they are."

One family walked in while we were still at the counter. The couple looked at the menu while their small daughter spun one of the stool tops. The woman looked at the menu in dismay until her husband pointed out the vegetarian burger. Tastes have changed since the burger and fries craze of the 1950s. Fortunately, Luv B's Café serves items that appeal to the 2005 crowd as well as nostalgic diners. In the counter trade, it's a good idea to keep morphing.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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