Eight beloved Triad restaurants (probably) older than you
When I was a kid in Fayetteville, my grandfather would bring me to Greensboro on summer weekends to visit his brother’s chicken farm on the corner of Friendly and Holden, and we always ate Sunday lunch at the Friendly Center K&W a short drive away. It was usually the same meal; roast beef, mashed potatoes, and chocolate cream pie for me, and for him, Salisbury steak accompanied by cornbread and two servings of collards, one drenched in vinegar and one in Texas Pete.
After we pushed our plates aside, I’d read comics while he smoked Pall Malls and flirted with the peroxide blonde at the register, whom he liked to compliment by saying “you look just like that pretty Dolly Parton on the Porter Wagoner show.” (It must have worked because they later went out on a few dates.)
That cafeteria opened in 1964 before moving to its present location (in what was then called Forum VI) in 1976. When I was at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in the 1980s, I regularly ate there with my great-aunts Virginia and Louise, who lived nearby. It was the only restaurant either would patronize in their final years. They weren’t churchgoers, but K&W served a similar function in their lives, and I always wore a tie when I drove them there on Sundays. Unlike my grandfather, who died just before I started grad school, I never asked a cashier for her phone number.
If that cafeteria is old, the chain is older. It evolved out of the Carolinian Coffee Shop in downtown Winston-Salem, which in 1937 was renamed the K&W Restaurant in honor of its original owners, T. K. Knight and his brothers-in-law Thomas, Kenneth and William Wilson. Their cashier, Grady T. Allred Sr., bought into the business, and by 1941, when he’d become the sole owner, he opened a second K&W in High Point. In 1951, a fire closed the original Winston one for extensive repairs and restoration, and it reopened in 1952 as a cafeteria. Allred soon converted the High Point one and the franchise was born.
The Cherry Street location lasted until 1972, but several other Winston restaurants have survived longer downtown than that first K&W’s 38-year run, remaining at or near their original locations for over 60 years, a record downtown Greensboro can’t match.
John Wesley Murphy opened a lunchroom at 9 W. Sixth St. in 1950, with his son John Wesley Jr. manning the counter. In 1953, it was listed in the city directory as Wes Murphy Lunch. It remained on Sixth Street until 1996, when it moved a few blocks to its present location at 207 W. Third St., becoming Murphy’s Lunch and Breakfast Too. The Murphys sold it in 2000, and it was sold again to John Nikas in 2010, but their family name remains, as does much of the menu.
Eating there recently, I felt transported to the downtown grills of my Fayetteville youth, only with better food and without the hung-over prostitutes. At $4.99, the Carolina Cheeseburger was not only cheaper but tastier than the fancy ones at most trendy burger joints.
A 15-minute walk away is the Lighthouse at 905 Burke St. Opened by George Pappas in 1954, its website proclaims it the “oldest Greek family-owned restaurant in Winston-Salem.” Alex Fragakis bought it from Pappas and in 1962, brought in Nick Doumas a partner. When Fragakis retired, Nick Doumas’s younger brother Louis came over from Greece and bought into the business. The restaurant is now owned and run by Nick’s son Joe and Louis’s son Harold.
In the Triad, Greek immigrants once dominated the restaurant industry. Downtown Greensboro historian Billy Ingram described Elm Street’s postwar “restaurant row” in “Greeksboro,” an article in his 2016 book Hamburger2. Ingram recently told me that, at its height, “Greeksboro” was the home of over 70 Greek-owned restaurants.
Most of those establishments served what the Lighthouse still satisfies its customers with baked chicken, meatloaf, Salisbury steak, spaghetti and flounder. Such staples were what the Acropolis, Greensboro’s first and oldest Greek (as opposed to Greek-owned) restaurant, specialized in when it opened on 416 N. Eugene St. in 1967, a date that makes it the city’s oldest still-operating downtown restaurant.
“My parents Gus and Eleni started with Southern-style American food,” owner Jimmy Contogiannis recently told me. “Breakfast and lunch were the bulk of the business.”
He said he started working there when he was 10 years old and their neighbors were North State Chevrolet, Burlington Industries and Sears rather than the ballpark and the apartment complexes. “I know you can’t do that anymore, but I did. From the time I was around 18, I was in charge, and by the time I was 20, I handled dinner all by myself. Both my parents would go home at 3:30 and I would take over.”
The restaurant switched to traditional Greek cuisine in 1980.
“We made the change on April Fool’s Day and never looked back.”
He stopped making breakfast decades ago but continues serving one of downtown’s best cheap lunches Monday through Friday, and dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Contogiannis admitted that downtown construction has made things tougher. “Last year, they closed off the street for almost four months, barricading it from Smith to Bellemeade.”
He said it almost put him out of business.
“They should have given me some kind of compensation, but nobody did.”
He told me that his biggest current issue is losing parking to concession vendors on game days.
“Not just on Eugene, but Edgeworth and even down Battleground to Crafted and Preyer Brewing. My customers can’t park, their customers can’t park, and people going to watch the game can’t park.”
But he said he intends to stay right where he is, serving the best meals he can. “We cook to order, and everything is homemade – the food, the desserts and the sauces.”
To counteract the parking problem, he said he offers delivery via Grub Hub and Takeout Central.
Downtown Greensboro’s second-oldest restaurant has its own problems with parking. When Linda Schwoeppe opened Cincy’s Downtown at 115 E. February 1 Pl. in 1987, she probably didn’t expect it to be any more of a problem than it had been with her original Cincy’s, which she opened at Quaker Village the year before.
“I used to run the Sears Distribution on Lawndale, where they had a huge cafeteria,” said Bonnie Kays, whom Schwoeppe hired to run Cincy’s Downtown, and who took over as owner in 1997.
“I kept hearing about Linda and her special chili, and when a salesman told me she needed somebody who knew something about the restaurant business, I met her and we hit it off and I came aboard.”
That “special chili” is Cincinnati-style, something all Southerners should try, regardless of how they feel about their own variety.
“Take one bite, and you know it’s completely different,” said Kays, extolling “its Greek-inspired flavors of cloves, allspice and chocolate.”
Her restaurant serves it over spaghetti or rice, over beef or veggie dogs, or by itself in a bowl, and offers two recipes. The meat chili is made with 50 percent lean ground beef and 50 percent ground turkey and is 95 percent fat-free, while their vegetarian chili is made with lentils and bulgar wheat and is 100 percent fat-free.
Downtown Greensboro fell in love with it, back in the days when Kays could count the restaurants there with the fingers on one hand. Now she has a lot more competition, but the real problem is parking, which became exacerbated when the city blocked off her street.
“We’ve still got the walk-ins, that’s not a problem, but what’s being hurt are the ones who drive down for carry-out.”
No discussion of the Triad’s oldest restaurants is complete without barbecue, and Greensboro’s oldest barbecue joint is Stamey’s. Warner Stamey opened his first restaurant of that name in Lexington in 1938, and brought his Lexington-style pork shoulder, slow-cooked over hardwood coals and served with red ketchup, vinegar and pepper-based sauce, to Greensboro when he opened Stamey’s Drive-In on what was then High Point Road in 1953. While the drive-in concept was remodeled into its present configuration in 1976, Greensboro’s first Stamey’s remains in its original location at what is now 2206 W. Gate City Blvd., with a second location at 2812 Battleground Ave. Both locations are owned and run by Warner Stamey’s grandson Chip Stamey, with Warner’s son Charles now retired, but continuing to live in Greensboro as Pitmaster Emeritus.
Another longtime Greensboro favorite is known only for two things: hot dogs and homemade ice cream. This is of course Yum Yum’s in the middle of UNCG on Spring Garden Street, which my former professor and neighbor, the late lamented Jim Clark, introduced me to in 1981 with the mordant warning that I should enjoy it while I could, “as the damn university is going to tear it down any day now, just like they did with its first building 10 years ago.” Considering that UNCG’s Borg-like expand-and-assimilate policy was well underway even then, Jim’s prediction was understandable but fortunately has not come to pass.
In 1922, W. B. Aydelette, Sr. opened the West End Ice Cream Company at the Northwest corner of Spring Garden and Forest Streets, where it eventually became Yum Yum Better Ice Cream and Hot Dogs, commonly known as just Yum Yum’s. UNCG acquired the property in 1973, tearing it down to make room for the Mossman Building, but the Aydelette family moved their establishment one block west and across the street to 1219 Spring Garden St., where it still stands today, serving both students and people who were already raising families when it moved, and now go there with their great-grandchildren.
In 1973, the year that Yum Yum relocated, another Triad treasure began selling some of the state’s best soul food 15 miles away. This is Becky’s and Mary’s Restaurant located at 731 E. Washington Dr. in High Point, perhaps the oldest African-American owned eatery in central North Carolina, and certainly the most legendary.
I’ve not been able to find verification for the claims, (repeated in multiple magazines, blogs and websites,) that Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey love this plain cinderblock cash-only restaurant, which is identifiable only by its address and the paper signs in its window, but the food I had on my first visit more than lived up to the hype.
The scalding hot fried chicken, crunchy-crispy outside, moist and flavorful within, was “only” excellent, but the sublime collards were the best I’ve ever had. So richly and perfectly flavored that I might slap anyone I saw drenching them with either vinegar or Texas Pete, the way granddaddy loved to do.
Then there was the fatback-cooked lima and green beans, and the banana pudding that made me feel like I was 12 again. Only the cornbread was less than spectacular, good but not appreciably better than K&W’s.
While waiting for my Uber, I asked smiling co-owner Mary Frances Ingram what made her collards taste so good. She answered my question just as my driver pulled up. When I climbed inside his Subaru, he asked me what I’d had for lunch, and I repeated what she’d told me. “Salt, sugar, fatback and love.” He chuckled before saying, in a voice that sounded like it belonged in a pulpit. “You can do a lot with those things.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.