For Dino’s, the Dolly Parton obsession all started with a painted, larger-than-life cut-out head of the country music icon. Five years ago, a loyal customer gave the coveted work by the local artist Brett Douglas Hunter to the Nashville bar, as it wouldn’t fit in her car for her long journey to Los Angeles.
According to the recipient and current owner Alex Wendkos, the portrait has been there ever since, a glamorous harbinger of the many pieces of Dolly memorabilia that would follow. Photos of the star, themed artwork from fans, and life-size cardboard figures of Parton began to adorn the dimly lit interior, and guests started to make a game of stealing, and then returning, a precious cardboard Dolly figure. “We would post on our Instagram that it was missing,” Wendkos says with a laugh. “But people would always help find it and return it.” The trick only spurred on the eccentric but weirdly fitting relationship that budded between the Queen of Nashville and East Nashville’s oldest dive bar, which some guests began to affectionately call Dolly’s.
It wasn’t until 2022 that Dino’s would acquire its crown jewel: a gigantic, fantastical lemon that props up a blushing sculpture of the star that acts as the new patio bar. Christened as Dolly’s Lemonade Stand, the bar opened this summer, but the idea for it first emerged from a trip down a post-pandemic internet rabbit hole. “My manager and I realized we needed a satellite bar outside to help split up the workload on bartenders,” Wendkos says. “So, we started brainstorming.” After looking into concession trailers and potential food trucks for the outside patio, Wendkos found the giant lemon in the Craigslist business section. Located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, it belonged to a man who worked with concessions for state fairs. “It was so ridiculous and outrageous, but it made sense for Dino’s,” Wendkos says. “I slept on it for a few days, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It made no sense—but, at the same time, all the sense in the world—to do this.”
After the seller dropped off the giant lemon in Wendkos’s driveway, she prepped it for its new life: She spent weeks cleaning it, brainstorming a name, and replacing the outdated sign. Luckily, it already had a functioning ice well, sink, and all the storage needed to serve as a bar. After deciding on the name Dolly’s Lemonade Stand, she called up Brett Douglas Hunter for the finishing touch. “There was no one better than Brett to make Dolly’s sign, because his indoor artwork was such a hit. He’s a friend and regular, and we all love him.”
Hunter’s finished sign was a perfect fit. The bold, mixed-media sculpture of Dolly, wearing a polka-dotted dress, welcomes guests to the giant lemon, her arms outstretched. According to Wendkos, guests and staff alike adore the stand…and so does Dolly.
“One of Dolly’s assistants was a regular, and she had wanted Dolly to come in for lunch before the pandemic,” Wendkos says. Then COVID-19 hit, and, like most people, the singer wasn’t able to make it to the bar. But after the grand reveal of the lemonade stand, she sent her own kind of tribute over. “Dolly’s assistant dropped off a black-and-white glamour shot of Dolly, saying, Dino’s, I will always love you. It’s signed, Love, Dolly,” Wendkos says. She cherishes the photo so dearly that she has squirreled it away in a safe place, but she knows Dolly’s love for Dino’s lives right in the dive. “She’s looking over us from afar, and it feels like we have her blessing. But I’m still holding out for when she comes in.”