Goodbye to Bert’s Seafood Grille

by Brian Clarey

By 9:40 p.m. the last ticket had been fired, cooked and sent out — a couple plates of mahi, one blackened Vera Cruz style and the other glazed with sweet and smoky hoisin, both plated with mashed potatoes and prefaced by dinner salads with bleu cheese dressing. The last crab dip, a big seller, went out to a table of TV cameramen who had just wrapped their shift at the ACC Tournament down the road. A staffer carried a vuvuzela from the wait station and sounded it in the middle of the dining room floor, signifying the end of dinner service at Bert’s Seafood Grille, a Greensboro institution since 1988, and with it the end of a chapter in our collective culinary history.

If you live in the area, odds are strong that you have eaten a meal at Bert’s — either the original storefront on Spring Garden Road or its second incarnation on West Market Street — at one time or another. And the probability that you worked either with or for chef and owner Mary Lacklen is just slightly lower.

I did my bit, that’s for sure, enlisting in 2001, when Lacklen and then-husband Drew bet the farm on a new venture they called Mosaic. It was a restaurant ahead of its time for Greensboro, relying on fusionstyle cuisine and great wine, with an esthetic that did not fully resonate with the city’s dining crowd. The place also had the misfortune to schedule its grand opening just a couple weeks after 9-11. But the food was fabulous. I still remember selling the crap out of the foie gras appetizer, a $17 number that paired the pâté with a polenta cake, a slice of country ham and blackberry sauce.

I worked for Mosaic and then Bert’s, when the Spring Garden place relocated to the new digs, until 2004, the last years in a serviceindustry career that began in 1989. And tonight, as the vuvuzela sounds again and again, I am joined at the bar by a couple dozen others who toiled for Mary Lacklen in various capacities. The place means something to all of us.

Sage Hanna honed her design skills here, making menus, advertisements and illustrations on the specials board. Frank Brooks met his life partner, Brad Newton, while he was waiting tables on Spring Garden Street. Julia Lingle, the unlikely grandma, came here after a stint at Lucky 32 and proceeded to run circles around servers half her age. Scott Townsend raised a family on the money he made at Bert’s, which for a time was the best restaurant job in Greensboro.

Tim Summey was manager at the old Bert’s from 1988 to 1990, and the re-enlisted for another stretch between 1991 and 1994. He remembers a phone call from a customer asking for a reservation for a six-top, something that was against restaurant policy at the time.

“The guy said, ‘I spoke to Bert yesterday, and he told me it would be no problem,’” Summey says, and we all get a good laugh because Bert, of course, was a dog. A good dog, yes, but not one capable of overriding restaurant policy.

The stories spill forth like wine gurgling from an upturned bottle: the strange requests, the impossible-to-fill orders, the nightmare customers.

Mary’s got one. “This lady calls for a reservation and leaves this message like, ‘There’s nothing on this menu even for $15.’ And as she’s hanging up she mutters, ‘Ripoff.’” If you know Mary Lacklen, then you know damn well she called this woman back.

“I said, ‘If you hate our food so badly, why do you want a reservation?’ Then I told her she was pretty sassy for an 80-year-old. She says, ‘How’d you know I was 80?’ ‘Just a guess,’ I said. She hung up on me.”

We remember the busy nights: Furniture Market, Tournament Towns, SuperJam parking issues. We remember the Christmas parties, staff outings, that time Jon Bon Jovi came in for dinner.

And as the vuvuzela rings out again, the current staff ruminates on their recent allocation to the ranks of the unemployed.

“I have to find a job,” says bartender Kelley White, father of a newborn son. “I’d like to stay in the restaurants — the restaurants have paid my bills, I get to stay home with [my son] Colby. It’s the best. If I got to go back to first shift, I will. But I’m gonna get drunk first.”

Brian Holdridge, AKA b-Ho, has been putting in 60 hours a week here for the last few months, and now he’s looking forward to slowing his pace a bit.

“I haven’t had a spring off in… sh*t, dude, a long time,” he says.

“I have some motorcycle rides I need to take. Then I’m gonna spend some time on the golf course and figure it all out.”

As for me, I’ll say it was an honor and privilege to work with these people, in this place. And to Mary Lacklen I say congratulations on a magnificent run. Twenty-three years is a long time. And I look forward to your next venture.