Restaurants in Cary and Garner break generic sports pub mold

CorrespondentJune 20, 2013 

  • Back in the Day Café

    3470 Kildaire Farm Road, Cary


  • MoonRunners Saloon

    1506 US Hwy. 70 West, Garner


    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals.

In their effort to break out of the generic family-friendly sports pub mold that has come to dominate the casual dining scene, two newcomers have opted to take a page out of the past.

Make that two pages – and very different pages at that.

Back in the Day Café

Back in the Day Café, which opened on New Year’s Day, surrounds you with memories of childhood. No matter if those memories are of The Fab Four and Twister or Madonna and Teddy Ruxpin. A dining room that’s a virtual museum to American popular culture of the ’60s through the ’90s is sure to stir pangs of nostalgia.

In keeping with the motif, the restaurant is family-friendly. There’s even a kids’ corner, where children (and the occasional dad) can entertain themselves with vintage Atari games on an old RCA console TV.

But you won’t be catching the big game on a big flat screen. Back in the Day Café is not a sports pub.

If you’re craving sports pub fare, though, you’re in luck. You’ll likely get a chuckle or two in the bargain as you search for your favorites among an extensive list of dishes whose whimsical names are inspired by the same pop culture as the decor.

Wings? Here they’re called West Wings after the TV series that debuted in 1999. They’re fried naked and tossed in your choice of seven sauces, from classic Buffalo to tequila-orange barbecue.

Nachos? You’ll have three variations on the theme to choose from. Miss Piggy, say, where pulled pork is the star of the show. Or Cheeseburger Cheeseburger: ground beef, bacon and cheddar.

Burgers? Ten grilled-to-order options, including Blues Brothers (blue cheese and Buffalo sauce) and Hawaii Five-O (pineapple and teriyaki sauce).

Dogs? I Dream of Weenie is a foot-long with pimento cheese.

Sandwiches? Just about anything you can imagine, from Freebird (marinated grilled chicken) to My Sharona Bologna.

Sandwiches, burgers and dogs come with your choice of sides. I’d skip the fries, which tend to be limp and greasy. Go for the onion straws instead.

Other options include a Cuckoo for Coconut Shrimp appetizer and an entree list that leans to comfort food such as Eddie’s Meatloaf and Aunt Bea’s Fried Chicken.

Lighter appetites and vegetarians are well-served, too, by an ample selection that includes California Craisin Salad, Popeye Pasta (spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and portobellos) and a veggie burger.

Back in the Day Café is owned by first-time restaurateurs Keith Baldi and Cindy Townsend. Judging by the crowds, it looks like they’ve scored a hit.

Baldi is even looking ahead to long-term success. “Twenty years from now, we may even put up a picture of Justin Bieber on the wall.” OK, maybe that’s pushing their luck a bit.

MoonRunners Saloon

A makeover in March by Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue” series transformed the former Character Quarters into MoonRunners Saloon, a watering hole that takes you on a daring ride back to the Prohibition era and the illicit culture it engendered.

A full-size mockup of a moonshine still sets the tone in a dining room whose rustic motif is further defined by old news clippings of moonshiner busts and mason jars hanging on rough plank walls.

Chef Guy Wavra, who owns the restaurant with his stepdad, Charlie Alexander, is delighted with the changes. “It’s a great new look,” says Wavra. “We like kids, but we’re not really what you’d call a kid-friendly place, so the saloon concept works. And we were able to keep most of the menu. We dropped a few of the less popular items, and we’ve added a few.”

Most of the new items are Southern classics, added with an eye to matching the new restaurant’s Carolina moonshiner motif. Temptations include cornmeal-breaded catfish, chicken-fried steak po’ boy, collard greens and Southern-spiced mac-and-cheese. Wavra proudly notes that the catfish is fresh, and that the fried pickle chips are battered in house.

So are chicken tenders and beer-battered onion rings, both fine representatives of the traditional pub fare that still makes up the bulk of the offering. Wings, available battered or (my preference) fried naked, aren’t bad, either. The rest of the starter list is pretty much a roundup of the usual pub suspects, from cheese sticks to jalapeño poppers.

If you don’t order the onion rings as a starter, you can (and should) get them as the side that’s included with sandwiches. The sandwich list isn’t lengthy, but covers the bases reasonably well from light (club, chicken Caesar wrap) to hearty (Reuben, Philly cheesesteak). Burgers aren’t a bad bet, either, and are available with a variety of topping options.

Better still is a culinary train wreck on a bun called Guy’s Big Dog. You can’t even see the bun – or the beer-battered, all-beef dog, for that matter – beneath the pile of chili (the kind with beans), onions, sauerkraut, sautéed mushrooms and three kinds of melted cheese. And don’t even think of trying to pick this bad boy up. This is a knife-and-fork dog, and worthy of its status as a signature dish.

In keeping with the theme, MoonRunners bar now features a list of cocktails made with modern (and now legal) moonshine.

You can sip one while you’re watching the action on one of the flat screens over the bar.

Odds are good that you’ll find some kind of motor sport on at least one of them. or

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