After a 16-month wait, the long-awaited Charlotte location of Chapel HIll’s cocktail club The Crunkleton is almost ready to open in the Elizabeth neighborhood. The planned opening date: Dec. 17.
A visit Wednesday afternoon found the fires lit in the 9-foot-wide fireplace, the leather bar chairs (reported to be $800 each) in place at the 18-seat oak bar, and the tables being set up. Liquor shelves behind the bar were still empty, but will be filled with bottles soon.
“More importantly, the staff will know how to use each one,” says owner Gary Crunkleton. “To me, the more discerning the palate, the better for our business. My approach is to build a cocktail culture through the classics. When I say ‘classics,’ I mean 1870s to 1950s.”
The former space of the comic book store Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find, 1957 E. 7th St., will be a private club (you can sign up for a $10 yearly membership right now) with ambitious open-hearth cooking, cocktails (including a collection of antique and rare liquors) and a kitchen team that will reunite four chefs with long histories in Charlotte.
While Crunkleton is known for cocktails, the food team assembled by his partner in Charlotte, longtime restaurateur Zach Goodyear, will be just as interesting.
“Getting the band back together” is how Crunkleton describes the kitchen team: Goodyear will work with chefs Greg Balch, Cole Gray and Matthew Carnevale. All four worked together at Ratcliffe on the Green before going on to different projects: Goodyear and Gray at Sauceman’s, Balch most recently at The Workman’s Friend and Carnevale at The Punch Room.
Crunkleton, a nationally known bar owner who made his name with the original location on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, has particularly busy recently: Crunkleton recently bought the legendary Chapel Hill restaurant Crook’s Corner with several partners, and on Wednesday, he opened a second place in Chapel Hill, The Neighborhood Bar.
Balch calls Gray “a rock star with fire,” who ran the pit at Sauceman’s. At The Crunkleton, that expertise will be put to work at the fireplace where they plan to cook whole chickens, pork chops and other larger cuts of meat. While the menu is still being finalized, Goodyear plans ramped-up twists on bar food, like smoked wings and a burger made with short rib, chuck and brisket, and a few sharable bigger plates, like a 36-ounce tomahawk pork chop.
Goodyear also plans a lot of seafood, including “oysters 3 ways” (raw, Rockefeller and charred). One unusual offering on the bar food menu: Honey toads, a non-poisonous puffer fish that tastes so much like chicken chefs call it “the chicken wing of the sea.” Goodyear expects the food prices to range from $8 or $9 for small plates and up to $45 or $50 for sharable large plates like whole chickens and the large pork chops.
The interior focuses on brick, the original tin ceiling over part of the room, and copper details above the cooking space and the bar. The room will seat 72, with 18 at the bar and 54 seats at the tables and several yellow leather banquettes. Balch jokes that he’s worried the big leather bar chairs are “too comfortable” — people might hang around instead of making room for more customers.
One unusual feature: Crunkleton is serious about ice and wanted block ice they could cut for drinks. But block ice usually requires a large machine and a hoist. Instead, he found a machine custom-built in Canada that can fit under the bar and make four 50-pound blocks of ice in two and half days. There are only three in existence: One is in Canada, one is in New York and the third is now installed in Charlotte.
“We cranked it up the other day,” Crunkleton says. “Ice is an ingredient, just like the spirit and the cutters (mixers).”
With The Crunkleton two doors from Paul Verica’s restaurant The Stanley, with its constantly changing menu and focus on local and seasonal cuisine, will the two restaurants compete for customers? Goodyear says he doesn’t think they will, because the food programs will be very different.
“Ours is meat on fire — kissing a lot of smoke. Not smoky smoking,” but a more rustic style than The Stanley’s focus on molecular gastronomy and very refined plates.
The Charlotte location has been a long dream for Crunkleton. His mother lives in the area, and he grew up in Denver, N.C. He started looking for a space in Charlotte several years ago, originally hoping to open on Central Avenue in Plaza-Midwood. When that didn’t work out, he briefly considered a project in Chattanooga, but turned his attention back to Charlotte, settling on the corner at 7th Street and Pecan at about the same time Verica announced he was taking the former location of Crisp to become The Stanley.