Reinventing Restaurants in the Sandhills
Hennings opens as chefs transform themselves and their spaces
By RAY LINVILLE » Photos by Melissa Souto
The only thing constant about the dining scene in the Sandhills is change. Some changes have been made in response to the coronavirus epidemic. Others are occurring in spite of it, as chefs and owners are reimagining their restaurants.
Perhaps the biggest change is the move of Hennings Taste of India about a mile south on U.S. 1 to where Squire’s Pub was operated for almost three decades by the husband and wife team of Scott and Dede Dawson. The move brings authentic Indian cuisine to what was a British-American restaurant/pub.
Although the exterior is about the same, the changes inside are accentuated by the aromas of Indian spices and homemade sauces as well as soothing Indian music playing in the background. The traditional naan, an unleavened bread, is baked in a tandoori clay oven. Depending on the entrée – whether chicken, lamb, goat, seafood or vegetable – the sauce may be creamy, spicy, or tangy.
Owned and managed by Kamal Pokhrel, Hennings is building on the following it developed when it first opened last year in the restaurant space of Days Inn. “The new location has been fabulous,” he says.
After opening initially for takeout only, Hennings has since expanded to include inside dining for both lunch and dinner, and continues to offer takeout, delivery and catering. “Our focus is on what this area’s American community likes about Indian food. We are featuring favorite South Indian and Nepalese dishes. Very popular are butter chicken and chicken tikka masala,” Pokhrel says.
“As well as lobster and crab marsala,” adds Vishal Vishnoi, his assistant. “We have so many specials.”
Perhaps the most creative chef in the Sandhills at reimagining his restaurant business has been Curt Shelvey. In downtown Southern Pines, gone is Curt’s Cucina with its popular entrees of picatta, sorrentino, Nonna’s Italian goulash (my favorite), and frutti di mare.
Now renamed Grinders and Gravy, the restaurant is riding a new wave of popularity for the grinders, which were not previously on the menu, that has pushed Shelvey to the status of a local rock star, no longer simply an owner-chef.
Customers order over the phone or at the order window, and then pick up at the new takeout window. With no inside dining space open, customers sit at the new outside tables or take their orders home. “The outdoor tables recently installed were custom-made by a Wounded Warrior vet,” says Shelvey.
“The restaurant scene is evolving. We will open up the inside again after the pandemic has ended, but it’s just not viable to have seating inside with the mandated limitations,” he adds.
The popular grinder comes in 15 choices but is always crafted with small-batch, old-world style artisan bread made by Tribeca Oven. The hand-ground and hand-breaded meatballs from grass-fed cattle are exceptionally flavorful, and they are huge. “I probably make about 1,500 meatballs a week,” the chef says.
“The Meatball Parmesan is the most popular, but I personally like the Beef Short Rib that comes with caramelized onions and provolone cheese. The Cheese Steak with shaved ribeye and provolone cheese with mushrooms, onions and peppers is also taking off,” he adds.
The other part of the restaurant’s name — Gravy — refers to Shelvey’s famous tomato sauce, which is the perfect complement to almost everything he makes. “The recipe is my own. I developed it when I was about 15 after watching other chefs in New England. I’ve been making it for 40 years,” Shelvey explains.
The famous tomato gravy doesn’t accompany every grinder. For example, a turkey gravy is on the Gobbler, which is a Thanksgiving meal (turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing) in a grinder. The Beef Short Rib also has a special gravy, a veal demi-glace.
During the pandemic, Shelvey’s menu continues to be a work in progress; however, the popularity of the grinders has placed daily pasta entrees on hold, at least for the time being. “The menu will continue to evolve, and I have another 15 concepts for grinders waiting in line,” he says. Great news: tiramisu is still on the menu.
Also moving on up is Danny Hayes, who recently closed The House of Fish in Aberdeen after buying a larger property less than four miles away on U.S. 1 between Aberdeen and Pinebluff. He’ll continue to offer made-to-order seafood fresh from the coast, but the new location offers more flexible service options with 4,000 extra square feet, and he’ll now also have a full-service bar.
After moving to Moore County in 2014 from Rockingham, where he had opened his first restaurant in 2009, Hayes has wowed the Sandhills with his great food and superior service. Well-known for his catch of the day and specials that change daily, he often offers limited time dishes (some such as the collard sandwich that are not even seafood-based). His seafood chowder is legendary and has been a main attraction of the Chefs’ Feast, an annual fundraiser hosted by the Food Bank.
“I’m definitely going to expand the menu and will be adding more items, such as steaks and chicken. They’ll be on the menu permanently,” Hayes says.
However, waiting for the new location to be ready is testing his patience. “I'm resting at night, but I’m not sleeping because I’m so excited about the new location and its expanded possibilities. I’m just as excited today as I was ten years ago,” he says, referring to his first year of having his own restaurant.
The changes wrought by the pandemic also weigh heavily. “My mind cannot stop trying to figure out the next step for my industry. We have to write our own next steps and decide how to take appropriate actions within the guidelines of the CDC and restrictions of the state. My brain never stops. There will never be a ‘normal.’ We cannot go back to what we used to have. We have to find ways to operate as conditions keep changing,” Hayes explains.
As famous for his live-feed videos on Facebook as he is for his food, Hayes is probably the most entertaining chef in the Sandhills. When he closed briefly in mid-July because of the pandemic, he created a “I so miss my customers” video. It’s been watched 2,700 times. (If he ever retires from the restaurant business, he can find a new calling as a comedian.)
As he says, “One bite and get hooked on The House of Fish.” However, the new location won’t be ready to open until late fall, so stay patient.
The changes keep coming. Berri Bowlful, once only a food truck is now also a “brick and mortar” on West Pennsylvania Avenue. Another change is the addition of Asia flavors to NE Broad Street as Bambu Boba Café has opened in the space previously occupied by Nosh the Deli. In Vass at its traffic light, the family restaurant has morphed from Miller’s into HomeGrown, which has creative breakfast and lunch menus and serves a biscuit and sausage gravy that Grandma would be proud of, except chef Chavez Foxx deserves all the credit.
Other new arrivals, all on U.S. 15-501, include Five Guys (burgers and fries), First Watch (breakfast and lunch), and Petro’s (chili and chips), and the opening of Roast (sandwiches, salads and more) near the airport is enticing many Sandhills residents. Meanwhile, China Garden Buffet, open for more than 21 years, has moved into the former space of Ruby Tuesday.
Oh, there’s also the birth of Villaggio Ristorante with traditional Italian dishes in a fine dining setting. It recently opened in the significantly updated Magnolia Inn, which itself opened in 1896. Buon Appetito.