Life has a tendency of reminding us of where we’ve been. For Rob Duckworth, that reminder sits a stone’s throw away from the bustling grill and taphouse that bears his name. But he wasn’t always serving beer and beef in the shadow of his family’s convenience store. It all started with a plot of land, an empty building, and a gamble to make the finest cheesesteak in Charlotte.
Rob Duckworth was embarking on something new when Duckworth’s Grill and Taphouse (then called Duckworth’s Cheesesteakery) opened in 2004. “I grew up in the convenience store business,” he says. “Food service wasn’t something we usually did.” But after multiple restaurateurs began showing interest in his building off N.C. 150 in Mooresville, he decided to try his own hand at the restaurant biz – with a concept based on the iconic Philly cheesesteak.
“There weren’t many cheesesteak places in Charlotte, so I thought, let’s do something different from everyone else,” says Rob. “We went to Philly and did the whole cheesesteak thing over a weekend, then came back to Charlotte and made the menu based on what we saw in Philly.”
From bread to beef, whiz or without, Rob and his crew spent a year in the test kitchens at Institution Food House, Inc. in Hickory, crafting what would become the first Duckworth’s menu. “We weren’t a franchise, and we didn’t have anyone to teach us. We literally worked 9 to 5 every day during the week to create the menu,” Rob recalls. “To make sure we could cook, we’d serve lunch to the people in the offices at IFH and get their feedback. We set up a blind taste-testing panel to find out what people really thought about our products. It lasted for weeks, if not months. The working environment was pretty neat!”
Through painstaking – but fun – trial and error, 18 sandwiches and 32 flavors of ice cream were born. In those days, Duckworth’s even had a drive thru, but the crew soon discovered it was hard to produce high-quality food at fast-food speed. While the boys in The City of Brotherly Love could sling shaved beef and cheese by the second, some things in the South simply required a slower pace.
Two years after its opening, Duckworth’s traded the drive thru for a patio and the ice cream bar for a liquor bar, decorated with 20 taps pouring everything from tried-and-true American lagers to highly coveted craft beers. Today, Duckworth’s name has become synonymous with quality cheesesteaks and a stellar beer selection, now boasting 40 draft brews at its Mooresville location, 60 at a location near SouthPark, and 75 at a future location in south Charlotte’s Ballantyne. And the menu continues to grow, too.
The Duckworth’s menu still boasts their signature cheesesteaks – available in beef or chicken – plus everything from ribs, steaks and fajitas to salads, seafood, and pizzas. And all are prepared with Rob’s belief in serving simple, basic, good American fare.
On a recent visit, a friend and I shared an appetizer of home-style bleu cheese chips dripping with creamy bleu cheese dressing and garnished with green onions. If you’re a fan of tang and crunch, be prepared to battle for the last bite.
For our meals, we both deviated from our go-to Cheesesteak Supreme with Cheez Whiz (a Philly staple and rarity in the south), and mixed it up with an order of steak fajitas and the Philly cheesesteak pizza. (Well, at least one of us attempted to stray outside the box.) Fresh and flavorful, the fajitas were a win. While the cheesesteak pizza was good, there’s no beating the real thing.
With every visit to Duckworth’s, I continue to be impressed with the warmth of the staff and the simple, no-frills quality of the food. As a native of southeastern PA, I can honestly say there is no better cheesesteak in all of Charlotte – the only thing missing is the attitude.
These days, chefs can get carried away with trendy techniques and menu items intended to impress, but often those are the places that fall flat. For nearly a decade, Duckworth’s has continued to stay true to what works, while comfortably weeding out what doesn’t. And it is this simple philosophy that allows Rob Duckworth to appreciate where he’s been, without ever having to look back.
Want to go?
Where: Duckworth's Grill and TaphouseAddress: 560 River Highway, MooresvilleHours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.Details: 704-799-2881; www.duckworthsgrillandbar.com.Prices: Appetizers: $4-$13; Sandwiches, Salads, Burgers, Wings and Cheesesteaks: $6-$11; Entrees and Pizzas: $7-$20; Desserts: $3.50-$6.