Taking over an established and beloved restaurant is an immense responsibility, but it means slightly more to Charlotte native Amanda Cranford, new owner of Dish in Plaza Midwood.
The no-frills eatery has been a neighborhood staple for Southern comfort food for 20 years, and Cranford understands what’s at stake.
“It weighs heavy every day to not fuck it up,” she said.
Cranford, who also owns Paper Plane Deli & Market in the nearby Belmont neighborhood, has extensive industry experience, though she admits her entire foray into cooking was an accident. She was working at a breakfast restaurant when one day the cook was so high that he couldn’t function, so she volunteered to cook the eggs.
“I was sold. I loved it. It’s oddly satisfying,” Cranford said. “When you’re on a busy line, it feels like you’re dancing.”
Cranford continued to work her way up, eventually landing a role at Reid’s Fine Foods where she started a commissary program and helped acquire and brand a line of in-house products, including a wholesale biscuit company that was distributed throughout the Southeast. She also does consulting work and has developed food programs for The Royal Tot, Devil’s Logic Brewery and Catawba Brewing Company.
Plaza Midwood is Cranford’s favorite neighborhood in the city. She loves the tight-knit community feel and says places like Dish are a big part of that. The restaurant has been around since 2002 and was originally owned by Penny Craver, Lawrence Stubbs and Maggie McGee-Stubbs. In September 2019, they sold Dish to Lewis Donald, owner of Sweet Lew’s BBQ in the Belmont neighborhood.
A close friend of Donald’s, Cranford knew he was struggling to balance his time between two establishments after making it through the worst of the pandemic. She knew what it would mean to the neighborhood — which has already lost a number of popular restaurants, bars and retail shops in recent years — if Dish closed.
In late June, she took over primary ownership from Donald, who stepped away to focus more on his barbecue.
“I have watched so many spots in this neighborhood that are beloved and are different kind of go by the wayside and the threat of that happening to a spot that means a lot to other people, I had to do something,” Cranford said. “I have regulars at [Paper] Plane that Dish means a lot to. I know people that, if Dish went away, I’m not sure where they would eat like six days a week.”
Dish has a dedicated pool of regulars who come in every morning, every evening and every Sunday for brunch. Among them is Bob, a 95-year-old man who walks from his apartment to eat at Dish twice a day and sometimes falls asleep in the booth.
Cranford said it’s important to hold onto places like Dish that make Plaza Midwood special, especially as the landscape of the neighborhood continues to change due to increased development and growth.
“We’re either gonna go the way of the dinosaurs or we’re gonna teach the community that’s coming in what it’s actually like to live in this part of Charlotte,” Cranford said. “If we lose something like Dish or Snug Harbor or Petra’s or Common Market, then we kind of lose the ability to do that.”
Hats off to Ho Toy
Before the iconic yellow brick building on Thomas Avenue was Dish it was a Chinese restaurant called Ho Toy. Junior Wong, the chef at Charlotte’s first ever Asian restaurant Oriental, had the building built in the 1950s and attached to his house.
There were originally two separate buildings: the Ho Toy restaurant and a Chinese laundry. When Wong retired in the early 1980s, he sold the property and business to his former boss at Oriental, Johnny Tom, who tore down the house and connected the restaurant with the laundry to create the space that Dish occupies today.
Tom eventually handed Ho Toy off to a “Mr. Chen,” who ran the restaurant until it closed in the late 1990s. From 1998 through 2000, Cafe Dada operated there with the former laundry building serving as an intimate late-night unplugged music venue. Phat Burrito also had a short-lived stint in the space before Dish opened in 2002.
Dish’s new late-night menu is a nod to Ho Toy. Served Thursday to Saturday until 1:30 a.m., it features a mashup of Asian and Southern comfort foods including Southern fried rice, sweet and sour meatloaf and Szechuan chicken and dumplings.
There’s also pimento cheese (Southern or kimento style with kimchi), fries with house dipping sauce and Alabama shrimp sauce, a fried chicken biscuit (Asian, Southern, or vegetarian style), and the option to “Dish It Out!” — a chef’s choice with no refunds or dietary restrictions.
“There’s something to be said about great, classic Southern comfort food and we’ll never change that about Dish, but this gives us the creativity to stretch our legs a little bit more as culinarians and to pay homage to the people that put all the effort into keeping this around before Dish got here,” Cranford said.
The new-old Dish
As the new owner/operator at Dish, Cranford has been careful about not changing too much about the popular diner-style eatery so as not to upset customers who’ve been coming for years.
Other than switching the shrimp and grits from a cream sauce to a Creole sauce, she hasn’t touched the classics. The meatloaf, lentil loaf, chicken and dumplings, salmon patties, country fried steak and the pot roast are all original to when Dish first opened. And Fred, who’s been working at Dish for 20 years, is still making his chocolate pecan pies and key lime pies.
The popular Dirty Mermaid cocktail (Bacardi rum, coconut rum, blue curacao, melon, sour mix and a splash of pineapple juice) is still on the menu and will remain even after Cranford updates the drinks in the coming weeks.
In addition to the classics, it’s important to Cranford that Dish maintains the personable service it’s known for. She believes people return to a restaurant not just for the food, but more so for the hospitality.
“When you walk in, you should be comfortable, you should feel like you’re at home. If you’re a regular, we should know you,” Cranford said. “And so that excuses a lot of the other change if the hospitality is consistent enough and the service is consistent enough.”
Some of those changes include extending the Sunday brunch menu until 9 p.m., condensing the number of side items and adding several new salads and entrees, including a beet and goat cheese salad and a pecan-crusted pork tenderloin.
Cranford said customers still have the ability to get a biscuit and deviled egg with their meal, but they’re no longer automatically on the plate as in years past — a decision made to cut down on food cost and waste.
While most of the changes have been well-received, others have been more difficult to swallow — like only offering collard greens seasonally. Cranford said she’s trying to shift Dish into more seasonality by adding new seasonal menu items and using fresher ingredients through Freshlist, a company that works with small-scale family farms throughout the Carolinas.
Don’t even bother ordering the sourdough pasta because Dish doesn’t have it. Cranford said she’s been kicking herself for putting it on the menu because the kitchen at Dish is too humid and the pasta can’t dry out enough to be the right texture.
“Trying to use a sourdough starter to make a pasta dough in general is a little touchy because it’s alive, so we’re just like feeding it even more in that environment. And we’re trying to kill it, essentially, in the dough and then process the dough down,” Cranford said.
It’s become a running joke amongst the staff whenever Cranford reminds them the “pasta is still 86” (a kitchen term that means out of stock). She said she might try to make a sourdough gnocchi in the fall in an attempt to redeem herself.
The passing of the torch to Cranford marks the second time Dish has changed hands in just three years, but this is where it stops, Cranford ensured.
“I fully intend to be here until I either die or they bulldoze this building down,” she said.
It seems the latter isn’t happening anytime soon, as one of the minority owners of Dish is also the building’s landlord, Ray Tom, whose father, Johnny Tom, owned Ho Toy. Cranford said Tom’s goal is to keep Dish a part of the community, not to price gouge or sell the land despite several offers over the years.
“Even on really frustrating days, when the kitchen is pouring water in from every which way and I’m asking everyone if they know how to swim, I know that the landlord that I have is in this because it means something to him,” Cranford said. “It’s really nice to see an example of somebody choosing for something to mean something more than money.”
With the property owner’s support, Cranford is already looking toward the future of Dish and conjuring up ideas for how to keep it thriving — ideas like potentially staying open 24/7 and bringing back live music. Dish used to have a pretty active music scene thanks to former owner Penny Craver, who founded the now-closed music venue Tremont Music Hall in 1995.
Donald experimented with bringing those vibes back by launching Dish After Dark, an intimate late-night live-music series that started in February 2020 but had to shut down less than a month later thanks to the pandemic.
Cranford also wants to completely rebrand the bar. She envisions revamping the side that used to be a Chinese laundry into one more dedicated toward the bar. She’d run her late-night menu there, put in working washers and dryers and call it The Cleaners — another nod to the building’s backstory.
“It’s fucking weird and I love it. It’s very Plaza weird,” Cranford said. “Also, it’s really funny to ask somebody if you can take them to The Cleaners.”
As a Charlotte native, Cranford feels immense responsibility for Dish to make it not just for the community, but for the hospitality industry in general.
Lately, she said it feels like genuine human interaction between people is lacking.
“Less and less are there places anywhere like Dish where we do know Bob’s order by what gets rung in. And I know Bob likes dark burnt bacon and I understand who Bob is as a human.”
At that moment, Bob emerges from the parking lot and begins to shuffle across the back patio toward the restaurant for his evening meal.
“Speak of the Devil,” Cranford said, smiling at the arrival of Bob before finishing her thought. “Places like this don’t exist and that’s why it’s so serious.”
When Cranford really thinks about it, making sure Dish thrives doesn’t just feel like holding onto a piece of the neighborhood. It feels more like holding onto a small slice of humanity in a world that is begging for it.
And she’s trying really hard to not fuck it up.
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