Lewis Donald does a great Penny Craver impression. It comes naturally because he hears from her a lot. Since taking over at Dish, the popular diner and bar that Craver and two others ran for 17 years before selling to Donald in September of last year, Craver hasn’t split the scene just yet.
“One of our biggest return customers is Penny herself,” Donald tells me as we sit in the bar area of Dish on a recent afternoon.
“She comes in and says, ‘Hey look, you don’t have to do what I tell you to do, but the carrots weren’t like this before,’” he says in a great impersonation of Craver’s drawl before returning to his own voice. “‘Yes, Penny,’ and you just figure it out.”
Since reopening Dish in October, Donald has been doing a bit of a professional impersonation of Craver, while slowly working in his own vision for the restaurant. Sometimes he takes her suggestions back to new head chef Vance Houser, sometimes the changes were all part of his plan.
His decision to switch from instant to stone-ground grits, for example, didn’t go unnoticed.
“That was a change for a lot of people. A lot of them embraced it, some people just didn’t, and that’s OK,” he says. “That’s not going to deter us from what we’re doing.”
On Feb. 23, Donald shut the doors on Dish again with plans to open back up on March 2 and showcase some of the most drastic changes he’s made yet.
His goal is to put into place a new culture at Dish — one that embraces the established family feel of the downstairs diner while making the upstairs bar a more inviting destination for the thriving neighborhood nightlife.
He’ll also make some culinary changes by consolidating the menu, capitalizing on all things Southern and getting rid of the items that don’t fit that description, namely the Mediterranean ones.
“My biggest thing was getting rid of pita [bread], just because we’re a Southern diner. I wanted to move away from that, so all the sandwiches are now built different,” he tells me. “A couple new sandwiches. We’re not serving pimento cheese and collard dip with pita bread. We’re going to do house-fried chips and Ritz crackers. It’s a little bit more Southern.”
The sandwiches he plans to introduce include smoked turkey and pork belly, cooked with the smoker from his other nearby venture, Sweet Lew’s BBQ. He also teases some spicy chicken menu items that aren’t quite Nashville hot chicken but “in the style of,” as he describes them.
At the helm of the changes in the kitchen will be Houser, a Charlotte native who grew up with Dish being one of the staples of the east side. He would eat there regularly, during his dad’s 25-year tenure working at Bojangles’ Coliseum, along with other gems like House of Pizza and Chris’ Deli.
Houser worked in the kitchen at Leroy Fox, then moved to Futo Buta, where he spent six months as head chef before Donald hired him for the Dish job. He said he’s been enjoying getting back to his roots.
“Coming in here, it’s what I know and grew up eating and cooking how I like to eat, so it’s been fun with that,” Houser says. “Then having other guys that I’ve worked with before and new people that I’m just starting to work with, being able to help them do the same thing that I like to do, play and create and elevate themselves, it’s been fun.”
Some of the biggest changes coming to Dish will be based more in aesthetic than flavor.
Donald plans to spruce up the patio, beginning with replacing the back door next to the bar with a glass door, so as to shed some light on the darkened corner of the upstairs room. That will also serve to let bargoers know that the patio exists, and that’s where they’ll see the biggest differences.
On the back porch, which has always been home to a few tables and shut off from the rest of the bustling neighborhood, Donald plans to open things up quite literally by removing the gate altogether and cutting the wooden fence down to chest level, with a bar to place drinks and plates on.
“I know the back of the building is a parking lot, but who cares?” Donald asks. “It’s the neighborhood. That’s where we’re at. We want people to see us and know us.”
There will be plenty of eyes coming from the high-traffic lot that sits between Dish, Thomas Street Tavern, Whiskey Warehouse and Wells Fargo, and what they’ll see is a new mural from SHE Originals. The artist has lived in Germany for the last 17 years but grew up near Dish in the Commonwealth Avenue and returned to complete her first public art piece in Charlotte, which will wrap around Dish’s two walls and the silver storage trailer behind the restaurant.
Beyond the food and the new look, Donald hopes to finish off the trifecta with a series of events that will bring people in for the new, later hours.
In January, he launched Dish After Dark, which has featured local musicians like Leisure McCorkle and Betty White Bronco performing for intimate crowds upstairs in the bar area on Wednesday nights. After the reopening, he plans to extend the Dish After Dark series to include karaoke and trivia events.
It’s all part of a plan to make Dish more than a diner, with later hours and plenty of reasons to come in and stay awhile.
“Charlotte’s really big on patios, and we’re in Plaza Midwood, and we’re really big on having a place to have a beer,” he says before pausing, the constant struggle between Craver’s wise words and his own vision apparent on his face.
“Maybe Penny will get mad, but it’s been real tough to get people to walk through Grandma’s house at 8:30 at night to get a beer, by making them walk through that restaurant,” referring to the look of the dining room rather than Penny herself, whom he considers a dear friend.
He hasn’t forgotten the family crowd, however. Upon reopening Dish in October he opened the restaurant on Sunday mornings for brunch, and says one of the biggest requests he gets to this day is to open even earlier on the weekends. The weekend brunch rush is often the busiest time at Dish, and Donald plans to ease the load on his kitchen staff by consolidating. He won’t offer the full menu along with the breakfast menu anymore, but a new brunch menu that will include all the breakfast items and some other favorites like salmon patties, chicken and dumplings, fried green tomatoes and other veggies.
Later in the year, he’s looking to potentially add booths upstairs, as he constantly runs out during popular dining times and hears from parents whose kids love them.
“We’re still diner-forward, we’re food forward, so on any day of the week and at night especially, we have tons of families that come through here and we run out of booths,” he says. “We only have five, so if I can put some more back here, that would help out with that, and that’s what we’re here to do: feed the masses.”
Feed those masses, just don’t fuck with the carrots.
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