Memories wrap around the Beef & Bottle like the strings of white lights that outline the eaves.
Birthday parties. Anniversaries. Date nights. One couple in their 70s have reserved the same booth once a week for at least 25 years.
In the little building on South Boulevard near Woodlawn Road, the front dining room is lined with booths and the lights are always turned down low. The big dining room in the back is brighter and louder, with families crowded around long tables.
The walls are covered with movie stills Audrey Hepburn in her perky hat, Betty Grable with those legs, Bette Davis with those eyes. On the sound system, Patti Page, Frankie Avalon and Dean Martin are still in style.
George Fine, who started it all, died in 2009. But he and his late wife, Lavon, left a mark on Charlotte like the brand on an Angus steer.
The Fines weren't from here: He was from Massachusetts and had a master's degree in textiles from MIT. He came to sell chemicals to textile mills and never left. She was a native of Butcher Hollow, Ky., Loretta Lynn's birthplace, and she started running a bar and grill when she was a teenager.
In 1958, George Fine opened the Amber House on North Tryon Street as a project for Lavon. Two years later, they sold it and opened a restaurant uptown, The House of Steaks of Sixth Street. It became Charlotte's power-lunch place. Upstairs, it included The Melody Club, with dancers in cages and waitresses in sleek black costumes with bunny tails, a look Fine apparently borrowed from Hugh Hefner.
Charlotte's Boom-Boom Room, jokes Rick Bouman, a managing partner who runs the Beef & Bottle today. (Slogan from a 1962 newspaper ad: See the Twistin Bunnies!)
In 1978, the House of Steaks had to move to make room for Discovery Place. Fine relocated to South Boulevard and Woodlawn, taking over Speedy's Suburban Tavern and renaming his restaurant George Fine's Beef & Bottle.
Today, the staff is all about family. You'd need a cartographer to map all the relationships spouses, mothers, cousins. Bernice Barrett danced in one of those cages at the Melody Club when she was 16; today, at 57, she runs the seafood station, making scampi butter and broiling lobster tails. Her mother, Mabel, and her sister, Vanessa, work there too.
With Valentine's Day coming up, we spent a Saturday night at the Beef & Bottle. We watched dishwasher Victor Bulldog Taylor muscle hundreds of plates and glasses, and line cook Kirstin Osborn grill almost 90 steaks, and chef Lisa Barnes cut 15 orders of prime rib.
Below, you'll see a Saturday night at the Beef & Bottle by the numbers. Here's the first:
Customer Gary Knight guesses he's brought 100 friends here since he moved to the Charlotte area in 2005. Only the locals know it, he says. This is, to me, what a restaurant is about. Great food, great staff.
By the numbers: Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013
The number on the liquor permit. Licenses 1-33 were held by businesses that have disappeared, making the Beef & Bottle's the oldest in the state.
Wait staff that night. One bartender, 7 waiters, 2 busers. Three are men, seven are women. Five run the kitchen: chef Lisa Barnes, line cooks Kirstin Osborn and David Wilkins, seafood specialist Bernice Barrett and dishwasher Victor Bulldog Taylor.
Customers served. There were 160 reservations by 5:15; four were no-shows. (Yes, they hate it when you do that.)
Booths. Booths are popular, so you have to reserve them.
Tables. In three dining rooms, including the Atrium, an addition at the back.
Celebrity photos in the dining rooms, foyers and restrooms. The pictures of Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and their colleagues don't mean those actors ate here. George Fine used them to create an old school ambience, says co-owner Ron Rice. That's what we are old school.
Kirk Douglas, Arnold Palmer, Zach Galifianakis and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner: Celebrities who have dined there. Douglas and Palmer's signed photos are in the office; Boehner wrote a letter after his visit in October, promising to return.
The date on a calendar that holds a snapshot of George Fine and Hugh Hefner, posed in front of the building.
How long it took regulars Juanita and Carl Andrew Holt to drive from Kannapolis to keep a Saturday night date. They've been reserving the same booth for more than 25 years.
Birthday desserts a cocktail glass of chocolate cake and whipped cream with a sparkler delivered to tables.
Vodka martinis sold. The house specialty is the dirty martini with a blue cheese-stuffed olive. That night's drink special: The Dirty Shirley, a Shirley Temple with vodka.
Cheese spread, onion
ring, vegetable platter,
toasted French bread:
The four things every customer gets. A dish of cold-packed cheddar spread is placed on every table, a wide onion ring garnishes each steak, and every table gets a tray of cucumbers, celery, cherry tomatoes and rings of red onion and green pepper to customize the salads. Servers heat the butter-brushed slices of bread on a press.
Steps it takes line cook Kirstin Osborn to cook each steak. 1. Brush melted butter on the flat-top. 2. Place a steak on the butter, brush the top and shake on a heavy coating of seasoned salt. 3. Turn, season and sear the second side. 4. Flip the steak onto the grill and top with a 1-pound weight so it cooks faster. 5. Turn and weight it again.
The time it takes Osborn to sear each steak on the flat-top griddle.
3 minutes, 7 seconds:
The difference between a medium-rare and well-done filet.
Most steaks on the grill at one time. Steaks are placed according to doneness and the order the ticket comes in: Well-done at the back, rare at the front, left to right from oldest to newest. If Osborn has to take a break, Barnes can step in and read the grill.
Filet returned to be cooked longer. Osborn judges doneness by squeezing each steak with tongs. On a bad night. I might have two come back.
Colors of plastic picks mark steak doneness: Red (rare), pink (medium-rare), white (medium), dark brown (medium well), taupe (ruined. Oh, all right well-done.)
Sirloin ordered butterflied and well done.
Steaks ordered: 42 small filets, 23 rib-eyes, 16 large filets, 14 N.Y. strips, 5 sirloins.
Combinations ordered (a small filet and seafood, from lobster tails to shrimp to crabcakes).
Prime rib ordered.
Foil-wrapped baked potatoes, 21 loaded.
A 14-ounce N.Y. strip.
The cheapest thing on the menu, a cup of French onion soup or soup of the day.
The most expensive thing on the menu, a filet and lobster tail combination.
The most expensive bottle of wine (a tie between Jordan Alexander Valley and Heitz Cellars cabernet sauvignon).