"I never thought I'd be back in here again," the old-timer in front of me chuckles ruefully, as we stand in line to enter The Jailhouse in downtown Belmont.
"You've been here before?" My question seems appropriate, given that we're about to spend some time on the inside.
"Sure," the gentleman says, his chuckle giveing way to laughter as he introduces himself as Gerry.
Gerry says he spent a night drying out in The Old Belmont Jailhouse back when it was a real jailhouse. That was 51 years ago. It's funny how the wheel always seems to send folks to the beginning again. What's funnier is that tonight, Gerry's more likely to get drunk than to dry out.
Built in 1966, The Jailhouse at 23 Main Street is no longer where folks spend the weekend ruing their bad choices. In April of this year, Matthew Matinata resurrected the old building as a high-end lounge buzzing with a new kind of activity. The Jailhouse has established itself as a bright spot on the growing Belmont scene, boasting a gourmet kitchen, a bar stocking more than 50 high-quality bourbons and a cigar selection like no other in the Carolinas. On December 13, the lounge hosts a gourmet four-course dinner featuring wine and Recluse cigar pairings.
At the door on the recent dreary November night when I arrive here, a line of locals brave the cold drizzle. Just up a small flight of concrete steps inside, a good-natured twenty-something hostess registers the crowd as people enter, a warm gaggle of Belmontians ready to top off a great meal with drinks and possibly a good cigar. The hostess, with a tablet and a grin, asks Gerry for his ID.
"Oh," Gerry says, rummaging through his pockets, "I wasn't counting on having to show my license." He smiles good-naturedly as a younger man to his left reaches over and gives Gerry's shoulder a friendly tap.
"Yeah, Gerry," the guy says, "just like the first time, right?"
A sound the original designers and builders of the jail likely never anticipated echoes hard off the concrete and steel of the stairwell: Laughter. And it's loud and warm.
The Jailhouse — the new version, anyway — is the brainchild of an old-school entrepreneurial triumvirate of three millennials: Old Stone Steakhouse director of operations Matinata, head chef Matthew Klepp and general manager and cigar sommelier Giannis Koutsoupias. The cigar bar, curated by Koutsoupias, brings a unique one-two punch along with its top-shelf brands of beer, whiskey and wine.
"Looking back, I can't believe I was actually having second thoughts about this," Matinata says, shaking his head. "I can't imagine doing anything else."
In black work shoes, denim and a matching black polo work shirt monogrammed with the Old Stone Steakhouse logo, the 32-year-old up-and-coming restaurateur recounts his entry into the high-end lounge business. Matinata grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and attended the University of Virginia, where he studied law. In 2006, during his junior year, his parents, Vincent and Linda, moved to Belmont, purchased the town's recently vacated police station and courthouse, and converted them into a restaurant, the Old Stone Steakhouse. The empty three-story jailhouse came as part of the deal.
When Vincent died in 2012, and Matinata came down to help his mother handle the nascent family business, he had an epiphany. "I hated practicing law," he says, and decided, "I would never work in an office again."
Casting his law practice aside, Matinata threw in with his mom and took over Vincent's role as director of operations, working alongside head chef Klepp, who had come aboard with Vincent and Linda at the start.
Learning the ropes took some time, Matinata remembers.
"It was overwhelming at first," he says. "Every day there'd be something new I had to grasp or some misstep I'd never seen coming. It was a lot."
Two years into the process, Matinata began to feel confident enough to start making some moves.
"Our bar was overwhelmed with heavy traffic every weekend. We needed to do something," Matinata says. He discussed the problem with Klepp, and the idea hit them in 2015: The empty jailhouse that had functioned as little more than a storage unit for the steakhouse needed reinvention. After a colorful past that was inextricably entwined with Belmont's history, the jailhouse would be reopened, but this time as a place not to confine people, but to help free them from their daily worries.
It had been decades since the building served as a fully functioning jailhouse in the waning days of the local small-town justice system. (If you're picturing Andy Taylor's Mayberry more than Virgil Tibbs' In The Heat Of The Night, you're getting the picture.)
The jailhouse initially operated in tandem with the neighboring police station and courthouse, but within two years Gaston County implemented a then-new processing system that sent offenders directly to Gaston's courts and county jail.
In 1966 and 1967, the three-story, 3,600-square-foot structure housed women on the top floor, and men on the bottom, but was soon vacated and stood empty save for one final hurrah the following year, says retired Belmont Police Chief Chuck Flowers.
"Our last function was during a jailhouse riot in Gaston County Jail in 1968." Flowers remembers with a laugh. "We weren't even processing prisoners at that point, but it was an emergency, so we were able to house those prisoners for a short time."
When Matinata and Klepp decided to bring Belmont's long-empty jailhouse back to life, they needed help. They found it in another partner in crime, Tim Johnston, a Belmont resident and president of the CL Helt design firm in Charlotte. Johnston was up for the challenge.
"As a resident of Belmont I was thrilled when Matt asked us to convert the former Belmont jail into a high-end bar," he says. But while the footprint of the building is relatively small, the renovation would not be simple. The jail cells were solid concrete and therefore not easy to modify.
"Aside from the practical constructability issues, a lot of careful consideration had to go into navigating the building code," Johnston remembers. "From a very early stage, we had to be confident the building could be adapted to its new use within an acceptable construction budget. This is critical in a project like this and is often where many adaptive-reuse projects fail to move forward."
From a design perspective, Johnston and Matinata both felt it was important to retain the experience of a historic jail by highlighting the cell bars as the backdrop to the bar. To accomplish this, it was imperative that they cut away a substantial amount of concrete, including a corner wall.
"Structurally, that was not an easy feat," Johnston says.
Now that the project is finished, the consensus is that it was well worth the effort. When you walk into the upper level of the bar, the red-cantilevered steel beams frame the steel jail cells behind the bar. This is by far one of the most impactful aspects of the bar.
"Fortunately, Matt had a clear vision, and I understood what he was trying to achieve," Johnston says. "He put a great deal of trust in me, my firm and our design process. I couldn't be more pleased with how the project turned out."
It turns out that someone else was paying close attention to the development of The Jailhouse, someone who would, in turn, have a profound effect on its image and destiny.
Enter Giannis Koutsoupias. If the Matinatas exude warm Italian vibes, general manager and cigar czar Koutsoupias projects 6 feet and some change of no-bullshit Spartan intensity. Koutsoupias, also the son of restaurateurs, and the brother of a Gaston City Council member, caught word that Matinata and Klepp were planning on turning their storage structure into a cigar bar, and he sprang into action. "There was not going to be a cigar bar in this area that I was not going to be involved in," Koutsoupias says as he walks through the jailhouse before hours.
The second floor, originally a row of cells and a shower for inmates, has been converted into the cigar lounge. It's a dark room with glass walls partitioning off the area from other patrons. The shower fixtures are still visible on any given night if you look up into the haze of smoky leisure.
And there's more on the third floor. "This was the guard's closet," Koutsoupias says, showing off the cigar humidor that boasts a variety of high-end cigars, brands Koustsoupias has vetted personally for the Jailhouse's repertoire.
Currently, thanks to Koutsoupias's efforts and expertise, Belmont's Jailhouse is the exclusive dealer for both Recluse and La Vida Habana brand cigars, two labels Koutsoupias had extensive experience dealing with in his earlier incarnation as a web-based cigar tailor.
Also on the third floor is a warm, wood-paneled pocket where a bar is fixed on actual cell bars. Fifty years ago, a female inmate here would have pondered a bad night of boozing it up, or the consequences of taking a swing at her philandering man in the heat of a Belmont night.
In addition to its top-shelf liquor selection and its high-end cigar arsenal, The Jailhouse offers classes in correct cigar consumption. There's a correct way to do these things, Koutsoupias says, and he is more than willing to show you which cigars will complement your meal, and how to enjoy them.
In the early days of The Jailhouse's renovation, Koutsoupias courted Matinata and Klepp relentlessly, lobbying hard for his gig. Matinata's smile betrays his respect for his manager, but he's not above giving Koutsoupias some good-natured ribbing.
"He hassled us for a few months," Matinata remembers with a laugh. "It felt like 10 years.
"We finally had a sit-down with him. It was pretty obvious right away that he knew what he was talking about. I said to Matthew, 'Let's give him a shot and see what happens."
It turned out to be the perfect choice. The three men, all 32, clearly work well together. Klepp, as head chef, has created a host of signature cocktails that you can only find at The Jailhouse. The selection ranges from his take on the classic Sazerac, to what he refers to as "The Final Whack," a variation on the martini made with Knob Creek Batch Bourbon, Creme de Cacao and Sambuca & Peychaud's bitters.
It was a challenge for Klepp to come up with a menu that could be served to The Jailhouse's small-town clientele.
"The idea was to create a small-bites menu that was something different than the usual appetizers served at the Steakhouse — more a tapas kind of deal," he says. Klepp, who created all of the Jailhouse's dishes, says his favorite is the coffee-encrusted pork belly served with collard greens, a triumph of his southern-smalltown-meets-high-end vision for The Jailhouse.
The Jailhouse is only one piece of an ever-widening web of development that town leaders hope will turn Belmont into the next must-see neighborhood in the Charlotte area's shifting urban landscape.
With another brewery and several new stores on the horizon, the once sleepy town is slowly waking up to the realities of new-century city living. The long-defunct trolley system may even come back, connecting Belmont Abbey College to its parent hamlet.
Belmont could finally see some honest-to-goodness college-town action.
"Once the trolley is running," observes Dick Cromlish, a lifelong resident and member of Belmont's Montcoss Chamber of Commerce. "The students will be up in here all the time. It's going to change everything."
With its ever-expanding choices of high-end liquors and cigars, Belmont's Jailhouse is ready to make its mark.
The lounge is a prime example of the 21st century's push to turn old memories into new stories, and invigorate empty spaces with dazzling bursts of youthful optimism and can-do millennial energy.
"We're anticipating the evolving tastes and wants of our customers, who are becoming more and more informed and discerning," Matinata says. "We wanted a fresh approach, a chance to anticipate the changes coming and be a part of that change."