"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is the rule in play at George Fine's Beef "n Bottle. Even the name reflects the era in which this restaurant was born. In the North Carolina of 1978, if you wanted alcohol, including wine, you had to bring a bottle into a restaurant that held a "brown bagging" permit. Although the North Carolina legislature legalized liquor-by-the-drink in 1978, the process was voted on by each municipality. Mecklenburg County became the first county in the state to vote in, overwhelmingly, a local liquor-by-the-drink law. George Fine's permit number at Beef 'n Bottle was 34.
"That was a big deal then," he says.
In 1978, downtown's Carolina Theater closed and the Adam's Mark Hotel was built. Private clubs were the most popular eateries since patrons could keep a stash of liquor there in liquor lockers.
Beef 'n Bottle was not George Fine's first restaurant. He and his late wife Lavon opened the Amber House on North Tryon in 1958. The restaurant experience came from Lavon Fine who had been a waitress at Buck's Restaurant in Asheville when she met her husband, who had come south from Boston with the textile industry. The Fines sold the Amber House and in 1962 opened the House of Steaks on the corner of Sixth and Tryon Streets, where Discovery Place is now. Upstairs they owned a private club, The Melody Club, with dancing and 1000 member-owned liquor lockers. They left that site for the location on South Boulevard. He bought the real estate in 1982.
After 25 years, George Fine's 90-seat Beef "n Bottle is still going strong. What's the secret to his success? "Consistency," he says. "You latch onto something and you don't need to change anything. People can recommend it with confidence because they know that people will find what they did. I've been around a long time, you know. Consistency is very important."
Just inside the Beef 'n Bottle, glossy photographs of celebrities stare back at you. "Some of these folks have eaten here," Fine comments. No, not Elvis. Fine quickly adds, "He died in 1977 before we opened. But Kirk Douglas was here. And Mel Gibson, Arnold Palmer. And Patricia Cornwell wrote about us in The Hornet's Nest."
The music, mixed by Fine, is a variety of 1940s and 1950s selections. The interior is dark. Very dark. Dark wood, high back booths, faded red gels cover the overheads, candles and red light bulbs in wall scones. There's a quirky aspect to the interior as well. The two very small bathrooms have a sink in the hallway in front of them. Directly across from this bathroom area is a small non-smoking room. The larger front dining room is for smokers. Although some memories are worth revisiting, the days of smoke-filled dining rooms are not one of them. I was stunned to see a woman lighting up at a table next to me.
Fine says, "Those high back booths are like baffles and contain the smoke." But the truth is they don't. Service is friendly. Fine says all his servers have been bartenders "so they do the mixing themselves and know how to talk to people."
The first item on the menu is Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry as an appetizer wine. When was the last time you saw that? The wine list is short: 10 reds, 10 whites. The corkage fee is $9 per bottle. The Beef 'n Bottle's menu is a time warp of the Cold War era, not the quiche crazed 1970s. Fine says many of the kitchen crew were with him at the Amber House in 1958.
Shrimp and oysters dominate the appetizers. The Scampi (the first in Charlotte, I'm told) had a half dozen shrimp gleaming in a bowl of buttery white wine sauce surrounded by slices of grilled bread. The Oysters Rockefeller, also a Charlotte first, I'm told, tastes of earthy spinach and the sea. A side order of creamed spinach, however, strays into saltiness. Potatoes and salads are inclusive with entrees. Bowls filled with chopped iceberg arrive with a Mediterraneanesque platter of freshly sliced green peppers, red onions, cucumbers, celery and whole radishes. A salad dressing condiment server with a dense blue cheese, a rarely found thousand island, a pedestrian French, and canola-based Italian is also delivered to the table.
The main event is, of course, the beef. Fine serves precisely cooked Black Angus and notes that he ages the meat for at least 30 days in the cooler. Cuts include filet mignon, New York strip, rib eye, sirloin, and bits of tenderloin sauteed in wine sauce with mushrooms, peppers and onions. Prices range from $13.95 to $23.95 for the thick filet. The strip proved to have an intense juicy flavor seared inside. Seafood items are also touchstones: scallops, frogs' legs, lobster tails, red snapper almondine, and fried shrimp. The bay scallops arrived immersed in a shallow bowl of melted lemon butter.
If, by this time you haven't exceeded your calorie/fat/cholesterol count, order dessert. The hot deep-dish apple pie served with cinnamon ice cream reminds you of the one your aunt brought to Thanksgiving dinner and the French silk chocolate pie remains unfussy.
George Fine says consistency is the key to his success. Owning the real estate cannot hurt, either. His timeless consistency allows us to take a bite of Charlotte's culinary past.