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Main Street USA 

Restaurant offers American favorites

Frequently, restaurateurs and their press agents bombard me with e-mail, voice mail and snazzy promotional materials with euphoric prose containing demands for attention. On the other side, I hear about a restaurant via voice mail or e-mail from readers or friends. The latter group seems to become more insistent when the restaurant is located far from the center of town in areas without an abundance of restaurant choices.

This is how 131 Main came to stand out. Since opening in August, co-owner and operational manager Mike Vaughn said his community support has been great. I would have to agree.

Vaughn is in partnership with Joe Douglas and Chris Carlsen. Douglas and Vaughn have been friends since they attended the hotel and restaurant school at Florida State University in the early 1980s. After school, they worked together in a number of chain restaurants until Douglas left the restaurant business to go into commercial real estate in the late 1980s. After relocating to Charlotte, Douglas joined with another commercial real estate developer, Chris Carlsen, to form Carlsen Douglas Investments, which focuses on development in the Lake Norman/Huntersville area. When this company began the development of the Village at Oakhurst shopping center in Cornelius, Douglas called Vaughn, who until last April was still in Orlando, about the possibility of opening the restaurant in North Carolina. 131 Main is located in this new shopping center off Statesville Road. Main is just a name, not an address.

The drive on I-77 North made me appreciate, once again, how far the metropolitan area of Charlotte extends. As the green spaces are being reconfigured into shopping centers, residential areas and service areas, I-77 North has connected the once staccato lights along its route into an even flow which doesn't end at the Mecklenburg County line.

The austere newness of the shopping complex facade is softened by the painted "131 Main" on the exterior brick, reminiscent of old styled advertisements painted onto brick buildings. Douglas and Susan Carlsen, wife of co-owner Chris Carlsen, designed the 5,500 square feet, 175-seat space. 131 Main has a Key Largo, coastal design feel with antique brick, slate flooring in the entry area, slated wood, gas light fixtures and large comfortable booths. This large dining area, low lit at night, is fronted on two sides by rows of windows that after dusk face blackness, yet reflect flickering candlelight. Immediately inside the door is the open kitchen where patient diners-to-be can watch the line muscling beef over a hot flame. An enclosed bar area is to the left of the entrance. Although the parking lot area has an isolated feel, once inside you're greeted by a friendly hostess. 131 Main attracts families as well as friends, and Vaughn describes the concept as "a casual, fine dining restaurant."

The menu is a round-up of familiar American favorites and although they take pride that "everything is made from scratch" and "we take freshness so seriously we don't even have a freezer for our food," this is not a chef-driven restaurant. Instead of a chef, Al Updike is the Kitchen Manager. The recipes are from the owners' "experiences and travels." The menu is straightforward and devoid of fancy techniques: a Lake Norman marinated rib eye, double cut pork chop with fries, roasted chicken with fries, cedar-planked salmon with wild rice, burgers, salads, and sides which include hand cut French fries, deviled eggs, cast iron corn bread, and loaded baked potatoes. Most of the entrees are in the $18 to $21 range.

The wine list has about 50 bottles in six categories: chardonnay, alternative whites, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, alternative reds and sparkling. Many of these are offered by the glass. Professional wine bottle uncorking devices are mounted on the sides of booths throughout the restaurant.

The best of what we had was the first to arrive: the house-smoked salmon decked with crisp toast points which we slathered with aioli. Fabulous. Next up was a round of salads. The Caesar salad was sadly soggy with a heavy-handed dressing. Better was their massive house salad, with the dressing on the side.

Entrees are served in hefty portions. The Prime Rib, sized for a beefeater appetite, was accompanied by an equally large oozy potato with lots of melted butter, cheese, chives and bacon. One dish, which was served not only to my table, but to many tables around me, was a platter of meltingly sweet, falling-off-the-bone baby back ribs, a bit messy with the touchstone taste of a tomato-based barbecue sauce, cole slaw and hand-cut French fries. Also good was the seared tuna salad with a zingy ginger vinaigrette.

The desserts tend to be busy. While the Key Lime excelled in spite of the salty crust, the banana cream pie was marshaled by a disproportionate number of banana slices drizzled with syrups. But I've never been fond of the non-contrasting texture combination of bananas and chocolate.

The service, while friendly and hospitable, has its flaws: Plates were picked up from some diners as other tablemates ate, and wine glasses stood empty.

Even though the Lake Norman neighborhood encompasses more than a few zip codes, 131 Main is a neighborhood hangout of a quaintly, grandiose scale. As Vaughn noted, "If you do the right thing, people will come." And they do.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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