Remember Ethan's, the eclectic Elizabeth hot spot that lured a loyal crowd with a seasonally changing menu and cozy neighborhood vibe? You may even recall Pearl, which suffered an abbreviated stint before quickly handing over the sauté pan to Solera, a Mediterranean establishment that shared a similar fate.
Each, for its own reason, has come and gone from the 70-year-old estate at Seventh Street and Caswell Road, earning the house a reputation as a revolving door for restaurants. The locals call it “The Caswell Curse,” but the building may not be to blame.
After Solera hit troubled times, Avi Kendi bought the restaurant. Kendi is a seasoned New York City restaurant developer and an avid supporter of the arts community. His signature is working with – rather than against – a location's original character to create an atmosphere inherently its own.
The result is Nolia , a contemporary spot that serves up shrimp and grits with a side of expressionism.
Pieces by local photographers and artists such as Stefan Duncan add uplifting color and personality to the otherwise minimalist dining room. Tables are dressed in white linen and brown paper. Sparkling silverware is paired with paper napkins. Chicken barbeque trades the bun for triangular fried dumplings, abstractly arranged on a white ceramic square plate. And you're more likely to dine to the tunes of Modest Mouse than Mozart.
Nolia isn't confused. It's a concept. And it's one that Mark Martin, former chef/owner of Ethan's, hopes will salvage the location's reputation. “Most of the restaurants there have tried the same things. Someone needs to do something more current,” he says.
Martin speaks from experience. Now the culinary director of the Art Institute of Charlotte, he enjoyed nearly a decade at 366 N. Caswell, eventually closing his wildly popular restaurant to get away from the rigors of restaurant life – not because he was suffering the effects of a bad location.
The house is actually prime real estate in a growing neighborhood destined for mixed-used development, according to David Krug, owner of the property since 1986. He has seen multiple businesses thrive within its walls – some even outgrowing them.
In the last 20 years, the house was rented by-the-room to hairstylists and vendors before becoming the Charles Grayson Spa. When the spa needed a larger location, Betta Grill moved in, and Martin took over when the grill lost a business partner. Ethan's was born, and since its departure about three years ago, no tenant has been able to create a recipe for success.
According to Martin, the key is developing a distinct concept that will encourage repeat customers – something increasingly difficult to achieve in recent years. “Charlotte's growth has led to great new restaurants for people to try in multiple new locations. Sometimes it is hard to capture that customer base, because there is always something new here,” he explains.
The upscale, yet warm and comforting charm of Nolia may be just the thing to break the so-called “Caswell Curse,” but it is still too early to tell. “We have good service, we help artists display their art and the food is good. But right now the restaurant is still trying to support itself,” says Kendi.
If Nolia can survive its infancy, its loyal customers are right around the corner. “I wish the best of luck to the new tenant,” says Martin. “The Elizabeth neighborhood really wants to see something succeed there.”
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