Appearances can be deceiving. Case in point: The Harrisburg Family House Restaurant, which looks as if it has been sitting beside N.C. 49 in Harrisburg since the road was first paved.
In truth, this seemingly mild-mannered suburban restaurant has a well-known urban past.
No doubt the place is popular. In spite of University City’s rush-hour traffic, the restaurant is packed at dinner time. The crowd is a heartwarming cross-section of modern America, in all our glorious diversity.
On a recent evening, a gray-haired grandmother patiently guided a wide-eyed, bouncy 3-year-old to the bathroom. A collegiate-looking young man in a hoodie, with an Abraham Lincoln goatee and vivid tattoos on rippling biceps, gently assisted an older gentleman in a jaunty green fedora as he made his careful way to the front door, using a walker.
It’s a family place, an old-fashioned celebration of food and community.
The decor is vintage roadside Route 66, with well-used dining tables and wooden chairs on a grid of industrial-strength beige linoleum tile. Comfortably broken-in leatherette booths line the edges.
Except for a unique, if somewhat odd, wall sculpture depicting a NASCAR race, there’s not a lot of art. About the only nod to modernity is a big screen TV in a corner, showing sports with the volume turned off.
Nine large men in gray T-shirts from the RJ Corman Railroad Construction Co. sat at four tables pushed together. A waitress told me they are regulars.
So are four equally large guys from the Harrisburg Fire Department who were at the next table, the leader with an emergency pager perched on his shoulder.
Harrisburg Family House delivers what all these hungry gentlemen were looking for: generous helpings of simple, satisfying food at a good price.
Aside from a couple of teens, not many people were checking cellphones. Instead, they talked with each other and laughed, enjoying the food and each other’s company.
The firefighters unselfconsciously bowed their heads for a moment of prayer before chowing down. It felt like home.
The lunch and dinner menu is lengthy, with steak, seafood and specials such as chicken and meatloaf, plus burgers and fries, subs, barbecue and classic Southern three- and four-vegetable plates. Fried okra is on the list, with collards, sweet potatoes, banana pudding and more than a dozen other choices.
There’s some ethnic diversity, too: Greek dishes, lots of Italian, and even a fish taco. The house desserts – delicious pies, decadent cakes, traditional homemade baklava (it sells out) and more – are a tempting addition if you have any room left.
I tried the Greek-style spinach pie. It was the real thing, true spanakopita, served with a big, authentically Greek salad piled high with feta cheese and a side of perfectly made tzatziki sauce.
The restaurant also has a long breakfast menu, and pancakes are a specialty. For some reason, the breakfast menu is not listed on the restaurant’s website, but don’t let that fool you. Breakfast is another busy time here.
It’s the menu that gives away Harrisburg Family House’s hidden past. Rich Haag, a University City journalist, spotted it immediately, just weeks after the restaurant opened here seven years ago. He noticed a familiar item that’s still featured on the menu today: Famous Athens Marinated Beef Strips.
Harrisburg Family House Restaurant may look like an Ozzie-and-Harriet throwback to simpler times, but Haag quickly realized that it was in fact the reincarnation of the old Athens Restaurant in uptown Charlotte, near Central Piedmont Community College.
That beloved, if rough-edged, urban eatery once helped define life uptown. Since it stayed open all night, in the days when Charlotte rolled up its streets about 9 p.m, Athens provided sustenance, shelter and strong coffee to writers, drunks, the brokenhearted and anyone else with no place to go.
In the daytime, families came in their finery after church, and politicians held court. Everybody, it seemed, had a favorite Athens story.
Beside Harrisburg Family House’s front door, look for a photo of the original Athens Restaurant, at then-Independence Boulevard and Fourth Street, and a framed copy of Athens founder Bill Mantis’s obituary from the Observer. Mantis died in 2006, not long before the Athens was forced to close by CPCC’s expansion plans.
The Mantis family and Athens staff found their new Harrisburg location the next year, after R&R Barbecue closed down in the same place.
Many of the Athens staff are still working at Harrisburg, and the menu has many Athens Restaurant staples. Regulars from the uptown days even show up from time to time, too.
The move has been a win, both for the restaurant and for Harrisburg and University City. In the years since Haag’s first review, Harrisburg Family House has become just as popular and rooted in its new community as it ever was uptown, if slightly less quirky. Its old site today remains a bleak empty lot in the shadow of a Central Piedmont Community College parking deck.
Harrisburg Family House’s successful move speaks both to the power of good food to bring people together and to the genius of the restaurant’s managers and staff in making their customers feel at home.
The old Athens fit perfectly with the diverse people and style of uptown. Now, with equal grace and sincerity, Harrisburg Family House again embraces and reflects its current host community, serving up what people want to eat while still quietly honoring its rich history and traditions.
It’s a class act, and quintessentially American. Whether you are looking for a slice of real baklava or a slice of real life, this is still the place to go.