Some restaurants go to great expense to create a retro-chic look. Then, there are those restaurants that are retro simply because they've been around forever and their customers like the food and decor just the way they are, thank you. Arthur’s, Beef ‘n Bottle, Villa Antonio and McNinch House are just those kinds of Charlotte institutions. These landmark restaurants don't need a menu makeover or a new design job. People keep coming back precisely because things stay just as they remember.
SouthPark’s stand-out sandwich jointArthur's celebrated its 40th anniversary in May. “We’re starting to see third-generation customers,” says Steve Balsley, who – along with his brothers, Robert and John – has run the place since the beginning.
Arthur’s started out as a wine shop on Fifth Street and then opened locations in Ivey’s department stores throughout the Carolinas. While they’ve been Belk’s restaurant for 22 years, they’ve been part of the SouthPark landscape for 38 years. (They also have an uptown location.)
Balsley believes the secret to Arthur’s success lies in the fact that they haven’t changed much in four decades. He says, “We operate on the principle of, ‘If it’s not broken, why fix it?’ That’s what our customers count on.”
In spite of a recent renovation that has brightened up the spot on Belk’s lowest floor, Arthur’s hasn’t changed in the ways that matter. They don’t tinker with the chicken salad recipe (big chunks of white meat with celery and not too heavy on the mayo), and they don’t mess with their signature Arthur’s burger (sautéed mushrooms, green peppers and onions, lettuce, tomato and cheese). Ask for a side of honey mustard dressing to dip the thick-cut fries in.
Arthur’s offers comfort and consistency in its food, and that keeps generations of Charlotteans coming back. Restaurant information: 704-366-8610, www.arthurs-wine.com.
Fourth Ward’s Victorian secretIf you don’t know to look for the McNinch House Restaurant, you might pass by 511 North Church Street thinking it’s someone’s house. It actually is[ital] someone’s house. Ellen Davis bought the historic property, originally built in the late 1800s, in 1978. She is only the second owner of the Victorian mansion that once belonged to Sam McNinch, Charlotte’s mayor from 1905 to 1907.
There’s another reason the place feels like home. The people who work there consider themselves family. The turnover so prevalent in the restaurant industry just doesn’t exist here.
Chef Chris Coleman has been there nine years, as has Anthony “Wes” Wesley, the wine steward. Davis’s daughter, Beth, assists in the kitchen. General manager Keith Cochran started there as a busboy at 17, and that was 19 years ago. His brother, Cory, is dining room manager.
Some recipes are Davis’s originals – the rosemary and Dijon-crusted rack of New Zealand lamb, for instance. “Ellen perfected it,” says Cochran. There’s no way to improve on perfection.
Davis grows many of her own veggies. In fact, the McNinch House adopted a local, seasonal philosophy before there [ital]was a local movement. Edible flowers and herbs come from her backyard garden, as do green beans and tomatoes. She collects antique china, sterling silver and crystal, and serves her guests with it. A favorite pattern is Old Country Roses, Queen Elizabeth’s everyday china.
But the restaurant has made some changes to keep pace with economic realities. “We’ve changed, but we’re always protective of our identity and our position at the top of the marketplace,” says Cochran. It used be that you made a reservation weeks or months ahead of time, and the maître d’ would call you a few days in advance to ask you to choose from among the featured specials. It was the very definition of a special occasion restaurant.
“But we wanted to be a place people went more than just once or twice a year,” says Cochran. They changed the preordering concept and now offer a menu, although guests can still opt for the full, 10-course experience. A simpler bistro menu allows diners to choose a more affordable, less extravagant four-course dinner. The restaurant developed other innovative offerings such as wine tastings every other Monday. Twenty dollars per person gets you a tasting of six or eight wines and a buffet that might include Davis’s trademark spicy pimento cheese, coffee-rubbed tenderloin slices and rolls and seasonal fruit.
Davis says the charming restaurant, housed in a building listed on the National Historic Register, has been the site of hundreds of engagements over the years. “No one’s ever said ‘no,’” she says proudly.
Restaurant information: 704-332-6159, www.mcninchhouserestaurant.com.
The South Boulevard stalwartsIf you were to pick up a Beef ‘n Bottle menu, you might think it had been locked in a time capsule since the 1970s. That may have been the last time you saw escargots or frog legs on a menu. (“They really do taste like chicken,” says managing partner Rick Bouman.) Those were the fanciest appetizers the disco decade dished up. Most chefs eventually moved on to other food trends – not Charlotte’s last independent steakhouse, though.
The hole in the wall on South Blvd. is a time capsule itself. Its dark paneled walls and candlelit glow are straight out of “Mad Men.” Remember the salad dressing carousel? You’ll get to see that relic again – if you have a party of five or more. Your dinner begins with another old-timey tradition: crackers and a crock of cheddar cheese.
To call the place unassuming is an understatement. The exterior gives little clue as to the fine dining experience that awaits.
Beef ’n Bottle started off at the corner of Sixth and Tryon streets – where Discovery Place is now. A steakhouse was on the first floor, and The Melody Club (one of the city’s first “gentlemen’s clubs”) was upstairs. It was a businessman’s paradise, says Bouman.
Not much has changed at the steakhouse in four decades, other than a move to South Boulevard in 1978. Bouman calls it “the most romantic dining room in Charlotte – in an old-school way” and notes the only change Beef ‘n Bottle has made over the years is that they finally started marketing in 2010.
Some of the original staff is still with the place. “Sylvia is a server, and Mabel is in the kitchen,” says Bauman. “Mabel’s kids even work here.”
Some of the same customers have been coming for years, too. “There’s a couple from Kannapolis that has been coming here and sitting in the same booth every Saturday night – except for race weekends – for at least 25 years,” says Bauman. Now [ital]that’s consistency.
Restaurant information: 704-523-9977, www.beefandbottle.com. The common denominator in all these restaurants with staying power is a family connection, and Villa Antonio is no different. The South Boulevard spot has been around since 1987. The original owner, Antonio Garcia, is still involved. His eldest son, Anthony Garcia, is the restaurant’s general manager. Hospitality may be in his DNA, but he also studied it; he earned a degree in hotel management with a minor in sommelier studies from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.
“Most of our customers are regulars, and most we do know by name,” says the younger Garcia. Some regular customers even have dishes named for them; the veal chop saltimbocca a la Teresa Rector is one. “We keep growing, improving and finding new ways to generate business,” says Garcia. For instance, the Garcias added a dance floor and live music Wednesdays through Saturdays, opened a second location in Ballantyne a few years ago and sell their cakes at Harris Teeter and Healthy Home Market. But the elements that make the restaurant a favorite with loyal following don’t change. “Recipes remain the same,” assures Garcia.
Villa Antonio has remained the same in another important way. “Most of our servers are the original servers,” says Garcia. “We know [our] customers, what they like to eat and drink and what their favorite song is.”
Understanding that a nice dinner involves more than good food, Garcia and his staff work to create a total experience for guests. “People come for the food, but also for the show,” he says. “When the doors open, it’s like the curtain comes up and we are on stage performing.” Part of that performance includes the 14-item dessert cart that servers wheel through the dining room while beeping a trademark horn. And while dessert trends have changed over the year (remember the flourless chocolate cake fad?), Villa Antonio hasn’t forgotten about the fancy desserts from a more formal era. “We make wonderful tableside flambés such as bananas Foster, cherries jubilee and strawberries Romanoff.”
Restaurant information: 704-523-5697, www.villaantonio.com.
The more restaurants change managements and concepts, the more these vintage spots stay the same. Reliably good food, a familiar setting and servers who know you by name will always be in style.
Tips from the pros:
Secrets of success Beef ‘n Bottle managing partner Rick Bouman’s secret to a great steak? “First, we season it with seasoning salt and butter and put it on a flat grill. Then, we move it to the chargrill,” he says. He doesn’t mind sharing the restaurant’s secret since, he says with a smile, “No one can duplicate this at home.”
Cucumber Dill Gazpacho with Strawberry-Black Pepper Sorbet Courtesy of the McNinch House (serves approximately 4)
2 English cucumbers, peeled and diced
1 rib celery, diced
1/2 small shallot, diced
1 tablespoon rice wine or champagne vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Texas Pete
1/8 cup fresh dill, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
1/8 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 tablespoon honey
Combine in a bowl chopped cucumbers, celery, shallot, vinegar, salt, lemon zest and juice, hot sauce, dill and garlic. Stir to distribute flavors evenly, cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.
Pour contents of bowl into blender and blend on high speed until smooth. Continue to blend on high for 4-5 minutes. This will create a very light and creamy textured soup. Once blended, stir in heavy cream, white pepper and honey. Chill until ready to use. Soup will keep in the refrigerator for three days.
To serve: Ladle soup into chilled bowls and garnish with a scoop of strawberry-black pepper sorbet (recipe follows), extra virgin olive oil, fresh dill sprigs and cracked black pepper.
Strawberry-Black Pepper Sorbet
1 pound fresh strawberries, hulled and diced
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
Season strawberries with a small pinch of salt and allow them to sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, combine remaining ingredients in a small pot and cook over high heat, until water starts to boil. Stir with a wooden spoon to ensure sugar is melted. Remove from heat, cover, and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Strain black pepper simple syrup into a blender, add strawberries and blend on high speed until smooth.
NOTE: Be careful when blending hot liquids. Steam can build up and cause mixture to explode. Uncork the feed hole in the lid, if possible, and cover with a paper towel, allowing excess steam to escape.
Chill mixture thoroughly, and process in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Alternately, pour mixture into a shallow tray, and place in freezer. Stir with a fork every 30 minutes or until sorbet is frozen. Sorbet will keep for about a week.
Arthur's Famous Honey-Mustard Dressing
2 quarts mayonnaise
3/4 quart half-and-half
4 ounces spicy brown mustard
1 pound wildflower honey Combine mayo, half-and-half and mustard. Whisk briskly until smooth, slowly adding honey. Yield: 3 quarts.
Lamb Chops Romero
Courtesy of Villa Antonio
New Zealand Rack of Lamb (whole rack)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper
Gorgonzola cheese Barola wine sauce Barola (or other red) wine
Marinate the lamb in olive oil and herbs overnight. Slice the lamb rack by each bone or leave whole.
Heat olive oil in a sautée pan over high heat. Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of the lamb chops. When the pan is smoking hot, drop in the lamb and sear quickly on both sides to lock in the flavor and juices. About 30 seconds on each side is all that's needed. From there, transfer to a grill and cook to the desired temperature. Let the meat rest for about 5 minutes after coming off the grill to reabsorb the natural juices. Sprinkle some gorgonzola cheese on top of the lamb chops. For the sauce Villa Antonio serves the lamb with a Barolo reduction, but Anthony Garcia says, "Any red wine will do." To prepare, sauté red wine with garlic, shallots and mushrooms. Cook on medium heat until boiling. Slowly reduce the heat until the wine sauce starts to thicken. Pour sauce over the lamb chops. Villa Antonio serves potato gnocchi or garlic mashed potatoes as a side.