I watched a guy trudge down the steps just inside the entrance of the bright, busy, TV-riddled uptown Duckworth’s. He stopped in front of the host stationed outside the sizable – and closed – door to The Cellar.
“This looks different,” he announced to her and the blonde at his side. “What’s different here from upstairs?”
“Everything,” the host replied, looking at him steadily and saying no more.
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And The Cellar delivers in two ways.
Atmosphere: The slightly darkened space sports beautiful brick walls dotted with glowing sconces, some variation in seating (I’m a fan of the heavy, bar-height wood tables) and servers who pair a frank and friendly practicality with more seasoned advice if you want it.
Strong cocktails: Both that I tried boasted big flavors and intensity, a pleasant change from three-quarters of the drinks around town.
So, yes, there’s the obvious Prohibition speakeasy reference, strengthened by that big sliding door (you can peer through a wired “window” and get a little of the sound as you stand outside) and the surprise of finding this place beneath the lighter-weight (though beer-gifted) Duckworth’s.
You may remember this circa-1912 address as Fox & Hound; oldtimers will recall the downstairs when Atlantic Beer & Ice had it. But real oldtimers will recall it as the jazz cellar at Jonathan’s, a place that opened before uptown was Uptown, back in 1984.
What The Cellar doesn’t do, that I’d hoped, is serve consistently good food. The dishes we tried were OK, for the most part, but unremarkable. Servers steered us toward small plates, but best of all we had was a main dish of pretty lamb chops with a nice bit of char. (Several steaks are offered as main dishes, too, along with some seafood, one chicken entree and a burger with Gruyere, onion jam and jalapeno bacon). Worst was also an entree: saffron fettuccine with little flavor beyond an aggressively sweet “bbq-fig sauce,” topped with a handsomely charred tentacle of octopus that was overcooked and tasteless.
In the middle: Nicely seasoned, coarsely chopped tuna and chunks of chicken with Sriracha and honey both proved juicy, though they were served in waffle cones that went soggy with speed (coconut shrimp was a third protein in that combo, another idea that’s a trifle elderly). Tuna also fared fine when stacked with guac and wonton crisps in another small, not innovative, plate, and a Cellar version of a charred Caesar salad (romaine, but with Gorgonzola) was clean and well-flavored. Preserved lemon risotto had a gratifyingly big swath of goat cheese, but was also overcooked.
Servers navigate a lot of ground: diners unfamiliar with the concept of small plates (the basics: you need to order several to make a meal; things emerge from the kitchen whenever they’re done) as well as those asking sophisticated questions about drinks. That menu is electronic; you can page through, though few beverages are described in truly helpful detail.
In short: Great space, cool thought, some work ahead for the food.
The Cellar at Duckworth’s
A surprise of a space with a good feel, though the menu needs work.
ATMOSPHERE: ☆☆☆ 1/2
330 N. Tryon St.; 980-349-4078; thecellaratduckworths.com.
HITS: Simple and interesting setting, executed nicely; good drinks lineup.
MISSES: A tendency to overcook, from a flatbread gone dry to octopus to risotto.
PRICES: About $8-$34.
HOURS: 5 p.m. to midnight Sunday-Wednesday, to 2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday.
INSPECTION SCORE: 90 Aug. 7.
☆☆☆☆ = excellent; ☆☆☆ = good; ☆☆ = fair; ☆ = poor