The Triad, it appears, is too small to be the recipient of quality outside journalism about food; I can’t recall ever reading something in a non-local publication that taught me anything about where to eat. Everything I’ve learned about the Triad’s culinary scene came from locals, both professional reviewers and otherwise, or through my own adventurism.
Everything, that is, save for one meager review.
My mom regularly clips things out of magazines she thinks will interest me — a piece on rafting in the Grand Canyon, a thoughtful New Yorker piece, a magazine’s entire beer issue or something pertaining to North Carolina in the national press. So while I wasn’t surprised when she mailed me a Greensboro restaurant review from Budget Travel six years ago, you can imagine I regarded the article’s contents with an overdose of skepticism.
Back then, just four years into my North Carolina era, I knew nothing of the area’s barbecue. I probably still associated the term with a backyard cookout and beef, oblivious to the battle between eastern and western style and only recently past my vegetarian phase. That’s around the time I graduated college here, and the review of the barbecue at Brown Gardiner drug store fit into my vision of discovering the city anew.
I remember being a little taken aback that such a lunch counter and dining area existed alongside a functioning drugstore, the sort of thing that’s been rare since before my birth. I liked the barbecue just fine, and hated the white slaw that I still referred to as coleslaw at the time, but the finer points were lost on me.
In the subsequent six years, my life and perspective have changed considerably. Now — as a food writer who’s stood in barbecue pits, who knows he prefers vinegar base to tomato, who barely grew up eating pork products but who now has hankerings for quality ’cue — I figured the time had come to reassess Brown Gardiner.
While my life unfolded unexpectedly in the interim, Brown Gardiner stayed the same. That’s the appeal of this diner, opened north of downtown Greensboro on Elm Street in 1958, especially for the 50+ white Southerner set. A clock on the back wall literally ticks backwards. Before I left, an old timer noticed my Boston Red Sox hat and quizzed me on the greats from the decades before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Candy on the counter retails for a dime, and I’m guessing the couple that sat nearest it can recall when it Brown Gardiner sold it for a penny.
My colleague Anthony Harrison, a Greensboro native of my vintage, also hadn’t been in the store in years, since his days working in landscaping when he would order a double cheeseburger for lunch. He helped me with the baseball pop-quiz and the special of the day — a sausage dog with fries for $3.50 — while filling in some of the history. Brown Gardiner is a Page Pirate hangout, or at least it used to be, the former Whirlie told me. This lunch crowd, we noted, looked more like an Irving Park cadre, with a few laborers salted in.
The Budget Travel piece didn’t exactly catapult Brown Gardiner onto the big stage, and it looked like nobody had even come for the barbecue except for me. The BLT easily ranked as the most popular menu item, at least on this Thursday we showed up. Harrison elected to diverge from his old favorite, but only slightly, picking the patty melt that came halved with a thin burger on each side rather than two stacked and split.
This time, I immediately noticed the distinct Brown Gardiner approach to ’cue — finely chopped, not pulled; somewhat charred, as if finished off on a flat-top grill; a smoky and slightly sauce, Bull’s Eye BBQ, provided in packets on the side; a white slaw that isn’t as mayo-heavy as most; a bun on the side for no extra charge; and some pretty salty pork.
Brown Gardiner’s isn’t true barbecue, cooked over wood in a pit like you’ll find at Mr. Barbecue or Little Richard’s in Winston-Salem or Stamey’s in Greensboro. And it isn’t as delicious as Boss Hog’s, the east Greensboro joint that’s home to my favorite hush puppies and a fantastic and cheap barbecue sandwich.
But it’s still satisfying. As are the crinkle-cut fries that come with it. This time, I’d come around to the slaw, mixing it with the meat but eschewing the sauce packets.
Still, it’s the sausage dog I’m left thinking about, which popped as I bit through the skin. Piping hot, halved and with onions in the center, Harrison and I readily dubbed it as the best thing we ate, though this is before he ordered a chocolate-covered waffle cone and salted caramel ice cream for $1.50.
Brown Gardiner is the sort of place where the servers and patrons know each other’s names, the unadorned sort of unremarkable place that time left alone. Think of Whattaburger, if you’ve ever been. Some things have changed here over the years — there’s a sign by the register inviting you to follow the old-timey soda fountain on Facebook and Instagram, and the clientele isn’t as overwhelmingly white as it must’ve been back when Brown Gardiner opened (though it’d be dishonest to call it diverse).
There’s a good chance that Brown Gardiner will never show up in one of those idiotic, pandering online lists. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the Budget Travel barbecue piece is the highest acclaim it warrants. But this modest restaurant inside a drug store isn’t aiming for such heights, and that’s just fine. Instead it’s there for you to depend or fall back on.