Lighthouse is a beacon on Burke St.

by Brian Clarey

I’m approaching my growing familiarity with the Winston-Salem culinary scene in much the same way I tackled my liberal arts education – I’m starting with the fundamentals and working my way up the food chain, such as it is.

And if I’m exploring the canon of Camel City eateries, then I would be remiss to exclude the Lighthouse Restaurant, in an unassuming little brick structure out by the West End.

It’s a simple place, with genuine wood paneling and three rows of wooden booths in the dining room. The counter is made of marbled granite, with an attendant row of swivel stools and a footrail, and on the walls hang a sparse collection of bric-a-brac – snowshoes, team pennants and newspaper headlines, a mounted billfish, a rifle with a bayonet – that is immune to kitschy irony.

The kitchen has been serving up hot plates since 1954 in this sturdy little room, the menu a reliable cast of characters that exists a few cuts above standard diner fare: center-cut pork chops and beef liver sautéed in wine share space with the usual burgers, sammies and salads; a list of today’s specials includes spaghetti and meatballs, braised beef, fried flounder and a cold plate with sliced meats and cheeses.

I opt for the chicken livers because, what the hey, organ meat. On the side I like a bit of mashed potatoes with gravy, some lima beans. And the food comes out fast, like before-I-can-cream-and-sugar-my-coffee fast.

I’m sitting at the counter, of course, as befits a party of one. And what a party I’m having. The lobes of liver are batter fried and nestled against the mound of potatoes, which contains a modest pool of real gravy. And not just any gravy – this is almost like a fine soup, with chunks of vegetables, thin shreds of beef and a sour, cabbage-y flavor that speaks to a Germanic heritage. I’m dipping my liver in it, swirling it into the potatoes and wiping it off my plate with bread.

And there is some serious hustle going on in this room. Behind the counter the staff moves in elaborate choreography near the pickup window; the front door flies open and bangs shut; the cash register rolls as the pile of spiked green tickets grows like strange fungi.

It’s the lunch rush, after all. And just about everybody in here knows the drill.

A place doesn’t survive for more than 50 years without a healthy cadre of regulars, and I’m sitting in the thick of what seems to be a daily noontime rite among these patrons. The guys sitting on either side of me lean around and resume a conversation that’s likely been running for years in 20-minute lunchtime snippets.

“A little late today?”

“I guess so.”

Behind the counter the activity endures, firing orders and filling ice waters and clearing plates to feed the machine. A server with the look of a longtime hash slinger spikes an order and turns to my neighbor at the counter.

“Well how you been?”

“Just fine.”

“How’d your mom like that spaghetti?”

“Oh, she always does.”

Then the patron turns to his own plate of spaghetti and meat sauce, his salad with extra tomato and Italian dressing on the side, and sets to work.

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