January 18, 2013

The Pewter Rose, a Charlotte landmark, closing Sunday

The Pewter Rose, a Charlotte landmark known for romantic décor and Sunday brunch, will close after Sunday night’s dinner, operating partner Susie Peck said Thursday through tears.

The Pewter Rose, a Charlotte landmark known for romantic décor and Sunday brunch, will close after Sunday night’s dinner, operating partner Susie Peck said Thursday through tears.

Its 25th anniversary in the 1920s textile mill building would have been Feb. 13.

Peck – who has “one of the greatest palates I’ve ever come across,” chef Geoff Bragg says – said it had gotten harder and harder to maintain the business, opened by a dozen partners in South End in 1988. When a water pipe burst last weekend, damaging first-floor tenants’ spaces, she made the decision that she’d “been thinking about for a while, but never wanted to do.”

Ken Browder of Browder-Harris Management, which owns the building, called the circumstances around the closing “a perfect storm.”

Browder said the cost of the damage will be borne by an insurance company (“whose, no one knows”) but noted the restaurant’s sales were off, “as are many of the restaurants’ in the city.” Add equipment problems, and “it’s too many things.”

Pewter Rose is the only tenant that has been in the building since he and Steve Harris bought it in the early ’80s, he said. “Susie’s had a long, long ride. It breaks my heart to lose her.”

The restaurant’s history is a bit complex.

Helen Scruggs opened the original Pewter Rose in Spirit Square in 1978. She served lunches of New England clam chowder laced with sherry, bleu cheese burgers and chocolate rum cake, and for eight years charmed uptown diners seeking a bit of French-country-inn flavor, a rarity in those days in Charlotte. In 1986, she closed the place, saying she needed a break, and went to Europe, to cooking school. She returned two years later and became one of the partners creating a new Rose.

The food was innovative for Charlotte – fettuccine à la Rose with smoked salmon and caviar, grilled chicken with artichoke hearts, grapefruit sorbet, chocolate cranberry torte. Peck, as operating partner, filled the airy space with flea-market finds and fanciful frills: a winged Mercury over the bar, a rose in stained glass, a dancing mobile of circus acts. Her husband, photographer Dustin Peck, helped place the things she found, and she credits Walter Rushton, who worked at Pewter Rose more than 10 years before opening his own Foskoskies, with an “incredible” decorating eye. “He would take my stuff and rearrange a corner, and we’d have a whole new spot.”

A redesign in 2007 focused on the brick walls, wood floors and paned windows, though faux ficus trees and lighting still evoke a bit of forests and fairytales.

When Scruggs left after a few years, chef Blake Dewey, with Bragg as sous chef, continued what eventually would be dubbed New American cooking, with dishes such as black-tea-smoked duckling and whiskey crayfish gumbo. He stayed some 15 years. Chefs Brent Martin and Bragg (now at Plaza Midwood’s Peculiar Rabbit) also had formative stints at the restaurant.

It is a place that encouraged idiosyncracy. All sorts of it.

“I applied there because I looked at the menu and saw they were pushing the envelope,” Bragg said. “Susie had a lot of vision for Charlotte. Tutto Mondo (the tapas restaurant/bar she opened in 1998)? No one was doing that kind of thing then.”

For a time, Bragg says, “I didn’t know anybody who hadn’t worked there. It was like you had to do a shift at the Pewter Rose if you were in the restaurant business in Charlotte.”

Betsy Boyd worked for Peck for 10 years. Now co-owner of Terra in Myers Park, Boyd said Peck was experimenting with food just before last weekend. “She had (a new) sweet pea hummus for us to try. She still has her creativity.

“I’m sad for the community. (Pewter Rose) was like your living room. I think (its closing) is going to hit a lot of people.”

Cathy Coulter, owner of 300 East, worked with Peck at the East Boulevard White Horse in the mid-1970s, and opened her own place in 1986. She got married in the Pewter Rose. “They opened right after we did,” Coulter said. “It makes you think.”

In every city, Peck thinks, there are great old spaces, “truly beauties onto themselves. We were lucky enough to find this. I’m proud of the fact it’s so comfortable. That’s what complete strangers still say.”

She said she had hoped her daughter, Madelon, who works at the restaurant (so does son Cody), might continue it.

Now, she’s preparing for the next few days: regular hours and, probably, “some old faces I haven’t seen in awhile. We’ll serve through Sunday dinner.

“One last Sunday brunch.”

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