One of Charlotte’s most popular drive-ins sticks to a winning combination of tradition and service.
It’s an hour and a half before Charlotte’s South 21 opens, and the staff scurries around the drive-in restaurant like they’re doing a choreographed dance. As the brown tile floor dries from an early morning mopping, a man cleans the windows, while in the back, three people prep the day’s onion rings. One peels, another slices, and the third slathers the results with a secret batter. No one runs into each other, and no one says anything because no one needs to. These folks have been doing this dance so long that it’s as natural as breathing.
“We know our staff’s moves, and they know our moves,” says Maria Housiadas, who co-owns South 21 on Independence Boulevard with her husband, George. “We don’t have to say a word.”
George says, “If I hear a noise, I know who’s making it and where they are making it.”
That kind of familiarity comes with practice, and this bunch has lots of it. Willie James, the gentleman cleaning the windows, has 56 years under his belt, and 49-year-old Maria has worked the counter since she was 14 years old.
“A lot of our cooks and our prep workers have been here for 20, 30, even 40 years,” George says. “I guess they like it because they’re still here.”
George and Maria’s 15 employees aren’t the only ones who like South 21. In addition to winning a slew of awards from local publications for its burgers, South 21 appeared on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in 2010 and has also been included in the 2011 edition of George Motz’s book Hamburger America: A State-by-State Guide to 150 Great Burger Joints.
South 21 may be best known for its Super Boy, a delicious stack of two beef patties, mustard, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes. The sandwich was initially called the Big Boy, but when Shoney’s moved in up the street, there was a legal argument. So, the drive-in went with Super Boy. The irony is that Shoney’s is now closed, and South 21 still serves Super Boys.
That’s all well and good, but that’s not what’s important to George and Maria. For them, it’s all about the people. “We’ve actually become like a personal environment. We know our customers. They know us, especially the ones who walk in,” says Maria, a petite brunette whose figure shows no evidence of eating onion rings all day, which she claims she does. “We pretty much know our customers’ families and lives, their problems.”
“They call on the phone, most of the time you know who it is,” says George, who came to the United States from Greece when he was 14. “You know what they want without them telling you.”
Same as ever
At South 21, customers come in and carry out their food or order from one of the 52 parking spaces. Maria handles all the parking orders through a Servus-Fone machine that’s been here since the place opened in 1959. It’s a bit worn and hardly muffles the roar of traffic on Independence Boulevard. But it still does the trick.
Maria’s father, George Copsis, and his brothers, Nick and Sam, opened the first South 21 on South Boulevard, hence the name, in 1955. That location closed about four years ago, and although there are a couple other versions of South 21 in the Charlotte area, George and Maria’s is the oldest, and to many customers, that’s what makes it the best.
“It hasn’t changed at all,” says Sonny Greene, a fly-fishing guide who’s been coming to South 21 for 40 years. “I’ve been coming here since I was in high school. … One of my best friends, he was Greek. … We used to come here just because he knew the people who owned it. We’d cruise around, grab a burger. I hope this place stays here forever.”
As a Charlotte native, Greene has seen many buildings come and go, so he appreciates the fact that everything at South 21 remains the same. There’s still 1950s mint-green tile on the walls of the waiting area. The Coca-Cola signs hanging in front of the parking spaces still read, “Please check your bill before paying.” The hamburger buns are still toasted on the edges. They still use all the old recipes for the coleslaw, chili, and tartar sauce. And the car hops still wear fedoras. “That goes back to the old, old times,” George says. “I found them here. That was part of the uniform. When I came here, they used to wear a red dress coat. … They used to wear it year-round, even if it was hot.
“It’s an old place, but the system still works,” says George, who has worked here since 1983. Sixteen years ago, he and Maria took the place over. Eleni, their 20-year-old daughter who studies psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has grown up working at South 21. “She helps here on weekends and whenever she can,” George says. When asked if Eleni has plans to take the reins one day, George thinks she just might. “She mentions that sometimes,” he says, smiling.
By 11 a.m., everyone is in place for the lunch crowd. Maria has wiped the counter clean and filled foam cups with sweet tea and slices of lemon. The cooks stand ready at the grill like tennis players waiting for a serve. And the onion team takes a break; trays and trays of onion rings wait to be fried — and devoured.
Orders start coming in through the speaker, and customers start walking through the door. George asks the folks he knows if they want the usual and asks more details from the faces he’s not as familiar with.
Jim Flowers used to cruise South 21 in his white ’59 Chevrolet Impala. “This place is a landmark,” Flowers says. “The food is incredibly good. We would sit out in the parking lot. Everybody would congregate there before we would find out where somebody was having a party.”
You’ll frequently find Flowers and his wife, Jenna, here on Friday evenings. “She calls it date night,” explains Flowers, who works a mile up the street in commercial real estate. “She loves the onion rings.”
Then there are folks like Tony Hill, who started coming to South 21 as a child. “My mother, she was basically a single mom from the time I was 7. We may have hit that place a couple times a week,” recalls Hill, who stops in on his way for a haircut to pick up a jumbo cheeseburger for his barber. “I like that the food is just the same as it was back in the day.”
3101 East Independence Boulevard
Charlotte, N.C. 28205
Hours: Tuesday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday,
11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Lori K. Tate is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Cornelius with her husband, John, and their twins, Graydon and Margot.