Stock cars racing across the roof? Check.
A cocktail bar and a 51-foot oyster bar? Check and check.
A menu loaded with fried seafood, oysters and steak? Check . . . with your cardiologist first.
Since this is for the “guy” issue of Lake Norman Magazine, we wanted to visit a bona fide “guy” restaurant. In the Lake Norman area, guy-baiting doesn’t get better than at Big Daddy’s of Lake Norman, the 36-year-old family-owned bastion of fried shrimp, prime rib and oysters by the tray.
There was only one problem. Although I can hold my own with a platter of fried shrimp, I’m a little short on the Y chromosomes needed to judge whether a restaurant is the perfect place for a guy.
I needed an official guy, someone wired to notice things I might miss. So I rounded up Mooresville denizen Mike Persinger, the sports editor of The Charlotte Observer. This is a guy so comfortable in his guyness that he tells columnists Tom Sorensen and Scott Fowler where to go. (Actually, he just tells them to go cover a Panthers game. He’s a very nice guy.)
As soon as we took our seats in one of the three dining rooms near one of the two faux-stone fireplaces, Persinger took command. “First, you need to count how many TVs are visible from the bar.” There’s a lot of wall space over a 51-foot oyster bar. Three TVs weren’t quite enough for him. “They could add a TV or two more and it wouldn’t hurt. I’d take out that Yuengling sign and add another.”
But he gave Big Daddy’s props for being smart enough to keep the Dale Earnhardt memorabilia in one section and the Jeff Gordon gear in another. Fans of those two don’t rub elbows well, he explained.
After admiring details like the use of blue dish towels as napkins and the three kinds of meat on the salad bar (pepperoni, ham and real crumbled bacon), we dived into the menu with hot crab dip. It was a good place to start. The ramekin had a generous amount of crab, a crunchy topping and a pile of warm toast squares. It had enough flavor that it didn’t need help from the wedge of lemon.
The weather wasn’t cool enough to be raw-oyster season yet, so we opted for steamed. The tray of a dozen came with a generous amount of melted butter and a little dish of cole slaw. Persinger wanted more heat from the cocktail sauce to get that macho “burn-between-your-eyes thing,” so we asked for an extra dish of horseradish.
It came in handy when my prime rib arrived. I’m not always impressed by prime rib. Those ribbons of fat can cover up some mighty lackluster beef. In this case, though, it had the right balance of fat to flavor, and it came with a cup of fresh-tasting jus. Remember that extra horseradish? It was just the thing to bring out the best of the beef.
Meanwhile, Persinger was working on the middle of the three sizes of fried-seafood platters. The Big Daddy came with a deviled crab that was nicely spicy and not too bready, plus fried shrimp, clam strips, fried oysters and a plank of slightly dry fried fish.
The shrimp and clam were obviously frozen, but truly, what can you expect at a seafood house that’s 240 miles inland? For $18, the quality was as good as the fried shrimp platter I had had in Wrightsville Beach a few weeks before for the same price. And it had twice as much food and a lot more variety.
Both plates came with very finely minced cole slaw – too fine for Persinger, not too fine for me – and baked potatoes. Can we pause here to strike a blow to end the restaurant tradition of wrapping potatoes in aluminum foil? It might make the kitchen’s job easier, but it produces a potato that’s steamed, not baked. In the 21st century, let’s pledge to find a better way to keep potatoes hot.
Portion sizes were manly enough to keep us from wanting dessert, although the list includes two kinds of cheesecake (locally made or fried), Key lime pie, chocolate cake for two and a birthday cake with candles delivered by a chorus of singing waiters.
Instead of hitting the lobby candy shop, we strolled along the framed and signed sports pictures that line several walls. When you face a wall with dozens of famous sports faces, Persinger is the guy you need. He savored them with the pleasure of an art lover at the Louvre, naming every face from Bobby Allison to Bill Elliott.
He even spotted the late country-Western star Porter Wagoner, and told me the blue sequined jacket Porter was wearing is called a nudie, named for Russian tailor Nudka “Nudie” Cohn.
You know, it takes a big man to admit knowing a thing like that.Want to go?
Big Daddy’s of Lake Norman Where: 1162 River Highway, Mooresville, 704-663-4242. (Take I-77 to exit 36 and go west for three miles. Look for the restaurant with the stock cars on the roof on your right.)Hours: Opens at 5 p.m. daily.Prices: $3.25-$9.45 ($8.95 for crab dip), $16.45 to $20.45 for seafood platters, $11.95 to $23.95 for steaks ($16.95 or $19.95 for prime rib).