Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Penguin

mid-1950's shots of the Penguin (above two photos)

Late-'80's photo during the rough times (courtesy of Byron Baldwin)

1999 photo during the extensive renovation

The new and improved exterior

Side shot of building (this was the front when the building was first built)-note the original sign from the old days

Nice night shot

Shot at dusk- the neon invites you in

Street sign- one of the few left that the city allows to rotate (due to its historical nature)

Street sign at dusk

Interior shot- the tile-checked floor was added during renovation

Barbecue sign from the old days

Hush puppies & fried pickles- two of the notable menu items

Corn dogs are made in-house from scratch (and deserve their own sleeve!)

Some of the best burgers in town

The Penguin began life in 1951 in the Plaza-Midwood neighborhood on Commonwealth Ave. For the first few years, it was an ice cream/custard shop (there was also a location on W Trade St). In 1954, the building was bought by Jimmie Ballentine. He doubled the size of the building and began drive-in curb service with a menu that featured hot dogs, hamburgers, and all of the classic '50's car-hop fare. In the late-70's, the neighborhood feel on hard times and the business district languished heavily for the next two decades. The Penguin, during this era, had more of a "hard-edged" feel to it and most people stayed away. In 1999, Ballentine sold the business and the new owners spent the next eight months doing a complete renovation. During this time, the entire area was experiencing a dynamic revitalization with the Penguin leading the way. The Penguin reopened in 2000 and featured a revised menu, an overhauled interior, and a full bar. Though the Penguin went through a dramatic transformation, the new owners have kept the feel and spirit of the original Penguin alive.


  1. I'll just throw in as an aside that you can get Penguin food at Alley Cat's (not sure if it's Cat or Kat) downtown on College Street. Do you know anything about that arrangement, Pat? I assume that they actually make the food on-site (they'd kinda have to), but the whole relationship just seems odd to me.

  2. I believe the food is made on-site. I think they originally teamed up to do Penguin food at lunch--not sure if they're started serving Penguin food in the evening. It's a great situation for both--I assume Alley Cat didn't want to do food on their own, and this way the Penguin gets a (sort of) downtown location.

    This might be the wave of the future. Nobles restaurant has started doing food for a Southpark-area wine bar.

  3. Something funny about the 'old' penguin in the early 90s: My then boyfriend was good friends with the family and he wanted to introduce me to Jim. I ordered a fried chicken breast sandwich and fries. When my food arrived via Jim himself, my boyfriend busted out laughing. I asked what was so funny. Then a few other patrons started laughing. All I could say was, "What?" Apparently, I got a 'Jim Special.' My boyfriend told me that NO food looked as good as what Jim had presented me. After looking at the subsequent plates that left the kitchen, I had to agree. Jim was a great man but he had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude (he had to, I learned) and the food in general, while good, wasn't near the work of art I got that day. And yes, there were some . . . er . . . characters that frequented The Penguin back in the day.