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Neighborhood spot serves up the charm

When thousands of out-of-towners converged on Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention, most had a list of local restaurants and watering holes to indulge in. One such hotspot was Alexander Michael’s Restaurant and Tavern.

The Chicago Tribune recommended the Fourth Ward mainstay to delegates looking to “wet their overused whistles.”

The Fayetteville Observer called it a “foodie gem.”

And when a writer for the Denver, Colo.-based Examiner.com happened upon the 116-year-old green building with the rusty red shutters and bay windows, she likened the discovery to finding “once-in-a-lifetime vintage Christian Louboutin shoes.”

But Charlotteans already knew that.

An uptown institution, the 1,800-square-foot Alexander Michael’s is lauded for its intimacy, service and soul-food-meets-Cajun menu of delicacies, such as the blackened catfish with Jamaican relish and Creole tartar sauce, the medium-rare classic London broil sandwich, and a beef stroganoff cooked with mushrooms, red wine and shallots. Inside, mahogany tables, deep booths and dim lights offer a cozy tavern-like feel. This year, Alexander Michael’s celebrates its 30-year anniversary – a mile-marker employees say is like a century for a freestanding, independent restaurant.

The milestone coincides with the restaurant and tavern’s receiving the “2013 Settler’s Award” from Charlotte Center City Partners, an uptown booster group. The award “honors the pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit of Center City businesses, institutions or retailers who have been key contributors to Center City’s quality of life.”

Owner Steve Casner, 59, likens their success to one part luck, two parts strategy. Because, he says, after three decades and even in the midst of a struggling economy, they know what they are, and – just as importantly, what they aren’t.

“We’re so small,” says Casner, “so we say, ‘Let’s just fill it up with people who really get us.’ ”

Alexander and Michael merge

A. Michael Troiano Jr. and Alexander “Zan” Copeland III, once attorneys in the same practice, opened the restaurant in 1983 in a green Victorian-style building at the corner of West Ninth Street and Pine Street in Fourth Ward, an area the city had been revitalizing since the late 1970s.

The building, a commercial island amid family homes and condominiums, formerly housed the Crowell-Berryhill Store and dates back to 1897. It’s on the Mecklenburg County registry of historic landmarks.

Troiano and Copeland wanted their spot to have a neighborhood-tavern feel like that of Providence Road Sundries, the Myers Park restaurant and bar in operation since 1933. But they weren’t interested in overseeing the day-to-day operations.

That’s when current owner Casner, then 29, got involved. Troiano and Copeland knew that Casner, an East Mecklenburg High graduate who’d already managed three restaurants, was eyeing to run a place of his own.

Casner helped design the first menu, which – save a few exceptions – looked like the one guests peruse today, and stocked dozens of different bottled beers.

Casner and his son, Cooper, then 3 years old, lived in the apartment upstairs.

Cooper grew up at the restaurant. Casner even made him a desk beside his own, so Cooper could do his homework while he did paperwork. Casner remembers taking Cooper to a different restaurant when he was about five years old. The service was lacking.

“I remember he looked up at me and said, ‘She’s not very good, is she?’ ” Casner says.

Upkeep on historic building

Casner says they’ve always been on a shoestring budget, and that running a restaurant in a historic building that can only seat 75 people at full capacity is sometimes a game of pennies.

So it was difficult when Casner asked Troiano to close the restaurant for a month of renovations in 2000. But rather than hire a contractor and construction crew, they paid employees to help paint, re-tile, expand and revamp the kitchen, reconfigure the bar area and rebuild the restaurants two 1920s-era coolers.

“We were here night and day, busting our butts,” Casner recalls.

Not many restaurants could get that kind of buy-in from employees, especially in the food service industry where most employees stay for months, not years, Casner says.

But at Alexander Michael’s, the average employee has worked there for six to seven years.

Kitchen manager Michelle Spicer, 54, has worked there 17 years. She attributes her longevity to Casner’s management and the relationship with the neighborhood.

“Customers know lunch is busy (for us),” says Spicer. “And I have customers who come to the (kitchen) window and lean in and say, ‘How are you doing?’ ”

Stay a while

Troiano sold his half to Copeland in the early 1990s. And in 2005, Copeland sold the restaurant to Casner.

Casner says establishing a reputation as a community institution means figuring out what they do best – and what they don’t.

For example, he once tried to cater to the football crowd, but found that fans preferred tailgates to sit-down restaurants. Now they close on Sundays and only rent to private parties.

Casner also hires for full-time positions almost exclusively. “I like to hire people who are dependent on this place,” he says.

They also never built a patio for live music, a calling card for many successful bars and restaurants, but one that wouldn’t engender community support from his area residents, Casner says.

And for the same reasons, they don’t want the drunk crowd. To discourage it, they don’t serve energy drinks. There’s a limit on shots. And as for the whole happy-hour and drink-specials trend, well, it’s not their thing either.

“We are a good destination spot for the (going-out crowd) who start their night here,” says Cooper Casner, now 32 and the restaurant general manager. “We love for them to have their last drink somewhere else.”

Sitting at a table by a window, Steve Casner points to his 1954 Chevy truck parked on the street in front of the restaurant. The truck bed is overflowing with flowers from a recent garden tour in Fourth Ward. Alexander Michael’s and the neighborhood have developed together.

Casner rattles off a number of areas that have exploded with successful restaurants in recent years: Montford Drive, NoDa, the Epicentre, the growing local brewery trend.

But with 30 years and a loyal following behind them, he says he’s just focused on tomorrow. “We still get our little piece of the pie.”

McMillan: 704-358-6045
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