Fincastle’s Diner: a nostalgia-filled burger joint
Behind the counter at Fincastle’s Diner on a busy weekday lunch rush, two employees in red shirts synch their voices and harmonize on an impromptu version of ‘“Heard it Through the Grapevine.’” All around the busy Elm Street eatery the patrons pause over their lunches, raise their heads and smile. Behind the register Emmett Morphis manages to work a smile of recognition for the tune, even as he swipes credit cards, spikes checks and shuffles the bills in the cash drawer.
He’s quite likely reminiscing about another job he once had, one where live music and rolling register tape were also integral parts of the shift.
Morphis worked the bar at the world-famous Tipitina’s on the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas streets in New Orleans in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He and I were, in fact, contemporaries down in that steamy city by the river, as was his younger brother Jody, with whom he now owns the Greensboro restaurant. Back in the day, though, Emmitt shared an apartment in an elegant Victorian mansion in the Garden District with my friend Kye Vera, another Tip’s bartender. When Emmett left the apartment, Sean Raymond moved in with Kye and when Kye threw him out Sean moved in with me.
Good times, people. Good times.
Last I heard Kye was a private pilot working out of DC and Sean was out in San Francisco living it up. The brothers Morphis and I ended up here, where we cheer on the Saints from a safe distance.
The former Tulane boys have done pretty well for themselves here.
Fincastle’s is a tribute to the glory surrounding the burger, the nobility of fresh-cut fries and the dignity behind milkshakes thick enough to vertically suspend a straw. A long counter with swivel stools stretches across the room. A crew of sandwich jockeys hustle meals out to the tables. There’s an old-time jukebox and a color palette of ketchup and mustard and mayonnaise on the walls. With shiny chrome fixtures and a menu that harkens back to the days before Lipitor, it arouses warm feelings about the way things once were.
‘“This is a real nostalgic kind of place,’” Emmett says.
It may remind some of its patrons of the old Boar & Castle restaurant, a Greensboro staple and the site of more than a few courtships among the married couples in town. This is not by accident, though the Morphis brothers, who hail originally from north central Mississippi, came to town long after the Boar & Castle turned off the grill for the last time.
Emmett says he heard about the place from his neighbor.
‘“He talked about the Boar & Castle and our eyes lit up,’” he says, recalling the moment.
The brothers knew they wanted to hitch their wagon to the rising star of downtown Greensboro so they hung their shingle at a prime spot on Elm and began peddling the best burgers in town. The best fries and onion rings, too.
The burgers start out as raw round meatballs which are pressed down on the griddle at just the right time so they don’t lose too much of their grease, which then seeps into the soft white buns. The fries are rough cut from fresh potatoes by hand and then sizzled to crispy perfection. The onion rings are also hand hewn and then dipped in a liquid batter which forms a delicate shell around the softened onion flesh. This batter also encases the thin-sliced fried pickles which have a crunch and zest that cannot be denied.
They make their own pimiento cheese, their own soups and chili, their own deviled eggs, and the soda fountain pours cherry Cokes and the ultimate Southern cocktail: and icy Coke with a handful of peanuts thrown in.
My choice was the butter steak sandwich, two wafers of processed meat on a buttered bun, ten bites of cholesterol-laden bliss that was lifted from the old menu at the Boar & Castle. They also mix their own version of the old restaurant’s famous sauce, a bit spicier than the original recipe and with a more pronounced presence of ketchup, which comes on many of the sandwiches.
They sling fresh ice cream here, too, shipped in from the Homeland Creamery in Julian and used to fill cones, top brownies and thicken shakes and malts.
It’s a bit more like Arnold’s from ‘“Happy Days’” than Tipitina’s in New Orleans, but the Morphis brothers will still be pulling some late-night detail. They stay open until 4 a.m. on weekends.
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