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.
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.
ring, vegetable platter,
toasted French bread:
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