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Presto Change-O

Eatery comes full circle


On February 11, 2003, owners Bill Nixon and his brother-in-law Pete Kartsonis will open the Presto Bar & Grill on West Trade Street. Although this restaurant is located in a spanking new building in downtown's high energy Third Ward, Presto has its roots in post World War II Charlotte.When the original Presto Grill opened in 1947, West Trade was the commercial heart of Charlotte. Presto was located one block from the bustling Southern Railway (now Amtrak) station and in a building that had housed a hotel since 1908. Presto Grill was open 24/7 when Tom Nixon walked from the train to Presto's back door in 1955.

Nixon Brothers' Presto Grill, owned by his cousins, was the reason Nixon left his home village in Greece. His cousins, who had changed the family name to Nixon, sponsored Tom Nixon to come to the US and the World Church Association donated the $200 for the trip. Nixon repaid them $20 a shot years ago and still keeps those canceled checks.

The original Presto Grill menu reveals much about Charlotte in the 1950s: five digit phone numbers and ads on the back cover for Mother's Golden Crust Bread, Southern Dairies Sealtest Dairy Products, and the old Butler Seafood on Morehead. Of the food offerings, the cost of coffee was scratched out and increased to 10 cents. Included in the litany of 30 sandwiches were a burger for a quarter, pit-cooked barbecue for $.35, and goose liver -- not foie gras, but livermush -- for $.30. The entree roster, inclusive of cole slaw and potatoes, included Virginia Ham Steak ($1.25) and NC Country Ham Steak ($1.65), a fried half spring chicken ($1.45), and a T-bone Steak special for $2. Also on the menu were a crab cake sandwich for $.50, and a malted milk shake with egg for $.40.

By the 1960s, the original Presto owners opened Nixon Brothers' Steakhouse on Independence and Albemarle Road and Tom Nixon with two partners bought Presto Grill.

In the 1960s, downtown Charlotte was vibrant. "Across the street was the Mecklenburg Hotel," Tom Nixon says. "Their restaurant served French cuisine. Beside them was The Little Canary, which served burgers and eggs. Next to me was a liquor store, a barber shop, two dry cleaners and another eatery, the P&M Cafe."

Times were good. He and his partners opened the Fish Net Camp in Matthews on Independence, now demolished to make room for I-485. "I started work at 5am at Presto and finished at 11pm at the Fish Net Camp," says Nixon.

This hard work eventually paid off. Nixon bought out his partners. In 1971, he convinced his landlord to sell him the whole building. He also bought some of the surrounding land, which he used as parking lots. Times were changing, though, for downtown Charlotte. "Nobody wanted this land then and people were telling me to get out while I could. But I was buying land because I saw I-77 built down there and I thought that if Charlotte was supposed to be any kind of city, the downtown would revive.

"At one time, everything was uptown. There were movie theaters, bowling alleys, and even a square dance out here on Trade Street. They all went with the people to the (suburban) shopping centers." In 1983, the Presto stopped serving 24 hours. West Trade Street became filled with prostitutes and vagrants.

Son Bill Nixon remembers, "I started helping in 1983. Presto had turned into a meat and two vegetables, a blue plate special place. Back in the early 1980s, you wouldn't see a woman walking a dog in the street. For that matter you wouldn't see a man in the street."

In the early 1990s Tom Nixon turned the restaurant over to his son and son-in- law Kartsonis. By the mid 1990s Third Ward's Gateway Village was becoming a reality. Upscale restaurants were opening downtown. Last summer Johnson & Wales University announced its intention to build a campus with a culinary school in Third Ward. Bill Nixon notes that with the downtown revival he knew the Presto Grill was outdated. Then the state focused on Nixon's block of Trade. Says Tom Nixon, "They decided to relocate the Amtrak station to where it used to be. And they bought me out. You know, the train brought me here and the train took me away."

But not too far away. Nixon developed the land at the corner of Graham and Trade into a two-story, 5000 square foot restaurant. Bill Nixon sees this as coming full circle. "We kept the name because of the history. Presto has always been a good place to eat." Now instead of vagrants wandering around, women are out walking their dogs again. Condos and new apartment buildings have replaced parking lots. The dry cleaners and beauty salons are back.

Bill Nixon has positioned Presto Bar & Grill for the 21st century. The new 140-seat Presto is funky and colorful. The upstairs area, with a state of the art dumb waiter, has both dining and bar areas, the latter equipped with televisions. The balcony overlooking Trade Street yearns for Sunday brunchers. More outside tables may be added to the sidewalk. Downstairs boasts another dining area.

The menu features American cuisine. Entrees range from prime rib and oregano marinated free-range chicken with wild rice pilaf to meatloaf with whipped potatoes, and Pacific salmon over dill and wild mushroom orzo. Entree prices range from $10 to $19. Pizzas, pastas, and salads are offered all day. The sandwich list includes an 8-ounce burger, albacore tuna melt, and grilled chicken pita wrap. Appetizers include fried calamari, queso fondue, tempura rings, and curry chicken satays with grilled pineapple and Thai peanut sauce. Among the breakfast items Presto serves are eggs, pancakes, waffles, and house made granola.

Hmm. Thai peanut sauce, Maryland crab cake with whole grain mustard buerre blanc, and smoked chicken quesadilla? Not exactly your father's Presto, but poised for success nevertheless.