Order up! Behind the scenes at Greensboro’s favorite restaurant

by Brian Clarey

Jessie Mack makes her approach with a tried and true smile, a water pitcher in her hand. She pours as she talks.

‘“Hi I’m Jessica.’”

She instinctively sizes up the table. Married couple’… forties’…probably got a couple kids’… glad, probably, just to be out of the house on a Friday night, just the two of them, an evening on the town.

She’s right ‘— Pam and Steve, a couple from Asheboro with the distinctive last name of Bimbo, which is either unfortunate or magnificent, depending on how you look at it, haven’t been to Bert’s Seafood Grille since the restaurant moved to West Market Street from the old location on Spring Garden Road. It’s not the most special of occasions ‘— not a birthday, not an anniversary ‘— but it is an occasion nonetheless.

Jessie Mack brings them their drinks, slips a homemade pad from the pocket of her apron and clicks her pen.

‘“We are out of several dishes,’” she says, rattling off the contents of the 86 board, ‘“but I got plenty of other stuff on there for you.’”

‘“I have an allergy,’” Pam says. ‘“To wheat.’”

‘“That’s fine,’” says the unflappable Jessie Mack. ‘“We should be able to find some stuff for you.’”

Pam is torn between the tilapia rarebit, cooked en casserole with a cheese sauce made from cheddar and a hint of Guinness beer, and the grilled salmon, a house favorite. She chooses the former, and Steve goes with the sesame flounder, another popular item.

Jessie Mack moves to the Point of Sale console and fires off the entrees. She grabs another pitcher of water and wets down the room.

In the kitchen Brad Hendrix pulls a master ticket from a tiny laser printer. He reads it and processes the information like an old-school stockbroker with a stretch of ticker-tape. In the salad station Chris Blackburn is already putting together the first course. Over in sauté Greg Brown pulls two flounder filets, runs them through an egg wash and coats them in a mixture that includes flour, cracker crumbs and sesame seeds before dropping them in a stovetop pan sizzling with clarified butter. Across the kitchen Will Ramey pulls a prepped tilapia, blesses it with red onion slivers and slides it into a 500-degree oven.

Jessie Mack sweeps through the kitchen just as the salads hit the tray. In a fluid motion she shoulders the load and glides through the doors to the Bimbos at table 10.

Pam picks at her plate while Steve chews on the bleu cheese vinaigrette. Meanwhile the Tilapia bubbles off in the oven and the flounder turns a golden brown in the sauté pan.

In about ten minutes Jessie Mack makes another run through the kitchen, hoists the tray and brings the food to the table. She’s been working half the room tonight, the section reserved for walk-ins, and her workload has come in sporadic bursts. She serves from the left, ladies first, and announces each dish as it hits the table.

‘“The tilapia Rarebit’…. Your sesame flounder.’”

A quick inventory of the table and she’s gone, back to her six-table circuit and more of the same. The Bimbos consider their plates a moment before digging in.

I think everybody should have to do it, work in a restaurant for a couple years,’” Mary Lacklen says. Perhaps she’s right ‘— maybe everybody should work nights and weekends, spend holidays with strangers, open wine and run food and clean up other people’s messes and, occasionally, get stiffed. It would be like the army in Switzerland’… we’d all be issued a corkscrew, an apron and a pair of comfortable shoes and hit the dining room floors. It would be a source of shared experience for everyone in the nation and we’d all be better tippers for it. Besides, working in a restaurant is fun. Just ask Mary Lacklen.

She’s patrolling her kitchen at 9 a.m. on Friday morning with a clipboard in her hand. She’s pulling open the coolers, scrutinizing their contents, making notations in a quick scrawl.

Back in the pastry section Dave Akers puts the finishing touches on a chocolate birthday cake. He’s already made enough Key lime and coconut cream pies to last the weekend and after this he’ll start in on the salad dressings. He’ll be out of here by five or so, before things get too heavy.

‘“Every morning I come in and sort of do an inventory of what we have, what’s coming in, what needs to be changed on the menu,’” Mary says.

Together with husband Drew she owns Bert’s and has been working the back of the house (also known as ‘the kitchen’) since they opened on Spring Garden Street in 1988. And between the two of them they have nearly 70 years of experience.

‘“I started out making pies in Hayble’s Hearth after school,’” Mary remembers. She worked there through high school. ‘“I waited on Aunt Bee there,’” she says, ‘“my first celebrity.’” Mary does not remember the actress, named Frances Baviar, fondly.

At 17 Mary was working in this very building, when it was known as Cheshire Cheese, managing the catering end of the business and picking up tables for side cash.

She hooked up with Drew in June 1980 when she was working at Franklin’s, where the Red Oak Brewpub is now. Mary was a waitress. Drew was a barfly.

‘“I asked him to the Who concert,’” she recalls. ‘“It was July seventeenth.’”

In the restaurant business Drew came up in the kitchen, first as chef at the now-defunct Madison’s, where he eventually became general manager.

‘“At first I said ‘No way,”” he says, ‘“but they were gonna hire a guy that I hated, so I took the job.’”

In 1984 the two opened Café 200 in High Point, a big dining room with quality fare at reasonable prices that thrived when the Furniture Market made its biannual money drop. But in the back of their minds was the idea of a return to Greensboro, their friends and their home.

‘“We were driving to work one day and we passed the old [Bert’s] location and they had a ‘For Lease’ sign in the window.’”

The old building on Spring Garden Street that served as a gas station in the ’40s had by the ’70s become something of a roughneck bar: ‘“The Horseshoe Lounge,’” Mary remembers, ‘“something like that.’” Fights were common and shootings not unheard of, Mary says. But the Lacklens saw an opportunity in the empty space.

‘“We wanted to fill the void,’” Mary says. ‘“We asked ourselves, ‘What does Greensboro not have? Fish that isn’t fried.””

In 1988, before the Food Channel, before the GTCC culinary program, before the Iron Chef and Bam! and just after the Sun-Dried Tomato Revolution of 1985, the Lacklens hit on a winning concept. Bert’s became an instant classic in the Triad restaurant scene and within a couple of years the tables scattered around what was once a garage became some of the most sought-after seats in town.

In October 2001 the Lacklens opened Mosaic Restaurant in the spacious room on Market Street, looking to duplicate the success of Bert’s but with slightly more refined fare. This time they read the market wrong: with an opening date just a few weeks after 9/11, an economy that was beginning to slide even before the Twin Towers crumbled to dust and a population that was, generally speaking, not ready to wholeheartedly embrace house-made fois gras, Mosaic was a magnificent experiment that, like microwave pork rinds, never quite caught on.

A couple of years ago they shut down the landmark shop on Spring Garden and moved the old concept to the new location. They’ve been rolling steady ever since.

And this is where I come in.

Disclosure: Like many (many) people in town I once worked for the Lacklens. I was part of the original staff at Mosaic and continued in their employ for more than three years. These people are my former coworkers and my friends. It makes my job easier tonight because I know the system and I know the deal. It makes it harder because if I get it wrong they know where to find me.

Up at the hostess stand Nicky Hocart answers the phone with an aristocratic British inflection.

‘“Bert’s Seafood, how may I help you?’”

The accent is for real ‘— Nicky and her husband are both natives of the UK who now live in the Old North State. Her speaking voice throws some guests off, and when they ask her where she’s from she gets a charge out of saying, ‘“Summerfield.’”

‘“We don’t have anything right at seven,’” she’s saying now into the telephone. ‘“We do have a first come first serve section, like at the old Bert’s’…. Okay then.’” She hangs up.

‘“They get so mad when they want a reservation on a Friday night at seven and it’s ten past six,’” she says. ‘“[For reservations] on weekends you’ve got to call the day before.’”

They had 67 reservations on the books before 9 a.m. and by the time they opened the doors at 5 p.m. the head count stood at 115. On a good night they can serve 250 dinners. On a great one they can hover nearer to 400. The key to big numbers is to have early and late rushes bookend the 7 p.m. seating. Everyone in Greensboro wants to eat at 7 p.m.

At 5:30 Julia Lingle gets an 11-top at table 125, a group of women, fans of the Lady Hokies in town from Roanoke for the women’s ACC Tournament. Julia circles the table counter-clockwise, scribbling the drink orders in her pad and then firing them into the POS machine at the back of the restaurant.

The ticket seeps out of the printer behind the bar and Beth Ferguson reads the order, sets up the Martini glasses, pulls the beers and sets a bottle of white wine in a marble collar along with two glasses. Julia runs half the order while Beth shakes and pours the Martinis.

Back at the table Julia makes another counter-clockwise rotation while the appetizers roll in the kitchen. She hits the guests one by one, eking out their orders with a restrained patience.

‘“What kind of dressing?’… Sides?’… People really like the roasted salmon.’”

As she gets the last order Aaron Kline runs her appetizers and drops them on an aluminum tray stand. Julia serves them and then makes haste towards the POS where she fires the entrées and a fresh drink order.

Around here they call Julia ‘“Granny’” because she is, indeed, a grandmother though she hasn’t yet hit her sixties and her skin is as smooth and unlined as women 20 years her junior. In the restaurant she’s a consummate professional, with loads of experience including a long stint behind the bar at Lucky 32 before coming to the Lacklens to help open Mosaic in 2001.

‘“I’ve spent 28 years waiting tables,’” Julia says, ‘“and I’m only 29.’”

For most servers an 11-top is an exercise in speed and timing. For Julia it’s just another day at the office.

In the wait station they’re talking about the problem of marketing the shad roe, perhaps the most exotic item on a menu that includes more than 70 dishes nightly.

‘“What is it?

‘“Basically it’s a shad’s uterus filled with eggs.’”

‘“Is that how you describe it to your tables?’”

Momentary silence.

‘“No’…. If they don’t know what it is, they probably don’t want it.’”

At table 12 a baby starts crying with a loud piercing wail. In the main dining room Tony and Ginny Siler of Rockingham County settle in to table 130. They’ve been coming in every Friday for about 10 years.

‘“We haven’t missed many,’” Tony says.

Ginny goes for the roasted salmon, her usual. Tony goes out on a limb. ‘“I’ll have the swordfish,’” he says.

At the bar Beth pours a three-glass flight of wine while Natalie Miller builds a strawberry daiquiri. She pours it into a highball glass from the blender tin, tops it with whipped cream and balances a cherry on the peak. Beth runs to the cabinet for a bottle of red. They’ve stopped making wisecracks for the moment, at least until the rush is over.

Kline steers into the kitchen with an armful of dirty plates. He stops at the dishwasher, dumps the scraps into a large garbage drum and wordlessly slides the plates to Pedro Valdez, who rinses them under a jet of water, racks them and then runs them through the machine.

In the appetizer station Will cuts a pita into triangles and slides them into the oven to brown. In sauté Greg flips with his wrist a portion of sliced mushrooms in a pan. He’s got three others rolling on the stovetop over blue-tinged flames, along with two hot iron skillets and a roasting tray holding a piece of salmon.

‘“I’ve got mushrooms going,’” he says, ‘“flounder, catfish, pasta Florentine’… I’m gonna put some oysters on in a minute’….’” He drops some spinach leaves in with the mushrooms and gives them another flip.

In the center of the kitchen, between the two food lines, Brad Hendrix hunkers down with a food ticket in his mouth, peering at a long line of chits and a two-deep expanse of plated food under the hot rack. He trays up a basket of fish and chips, a salmon with fruit salsa, two orders of shrimp and grits and sides of black beans, hush puppies, cole slaw and bread with butter. He sprinkles chopped parsley over everything just as Kate Torres comes in for the load.

‘“Thanks,’” she says.

‘“Eat it,’” Brad says.

‘“Suck it,’” Kate says as she makes for the swinging doors to the dining room, where she puts on her waitress face and glides to table 115 to drop the food.

She drops the entrées and notices that the party doesn’t have forks. There are none at the shelves in the back so she must run to the main wait station for more before tending to the thousand other urgent tasks at hand.

It’s 7:40. The place is jumping.

The cooldown starts early tonight, a few clicks before 10 p.m. There are still plenty of tables but Mary takes respite at the bar, a plate of king crab legs and a glass of white wine before her’— her day, more or less, is done. Drew makes wide circles around the dining room floor, chatting with tables and picking up stray plates and glasses.

One by one the servers ‘— the ones over 21 ‘— join her at the bar as they close out their tables and complete their sidework. In the kitchen they’re starting the breakdown, pulling, storing, wiping, scraping. After the last dinner goes out they’ll scrub, mop, rinse and squeegee the floor. The dishwashers, Pedro and Rosendo Valdez, will be here until the bitter end, running the last of the plates and kitchen components through the slushing, chugging machine.

Mary eats three of the crab legs and sits back in her chair.

Even at the end of a busy evening the restaurant is resplendent in warm tones, stained wood, tasteful flourishes. A school of colorful fish swims in the air over the bar; another swarms by the palm trees in the center of the main dining room near the skylight. The walls teem with tasteful art: a mosaic tile mirror, culinary-themed lithographs, abstract oils on canvas. By the hostess desk hang nearly 20 years of awards, both local and national, and framed newspaper clippings that date back to the ’80s. The Lacklens have decades of hard work behind them. But they never sit still for too long.

‘“You’re only as good as your last meal,’” Mary likes to quip.

And after hours at the bar she returns to her central thesis, something she’s been saying for years.

‘“I think everybody should have to work in a restaurant for a couple years. Everybody should know what it takes to get out a good plate of food.’”

She pushes the remaining crab legs away, polishes off her glass of white. It’s not quite 11 p.m. and she’s still got to drive home and tend her animals before catching what sleep she can and coming back in the morning to start all over again.

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