'27 Views of Raleigh' excerpt by Dana Wynne Lindquist: 'Dining at Balentines'

September 21, 2013 

Editor's note: This story incorrectly spelled the name of a cafeteria formerly located in Cameron Village. the correct spelling is "Balentine's."

My father’s father, Robert W. Wynne Jr., was not an easy man to know. In fact, he confounded me – and others – with his mix of tenderheartedness, sternness, and affability. I saw him tear up and pull out his white handkerchief to dab the corners of his eyes on more occasions than I can count. Occasions when no one else was crying. It is hard imagine how he got through each day of his career as a funeral director who witnessed, dignified, and softened the grief of others as best he could.

But at Raleigh’s Brown-Wynne Funeral Home and at his own home in the Budleigh neighborhood, he ran a tight ship. A light left on or off, a sofa cushion not plumped, a phone call not responded to promptly – all could elicit a sharp word. And yet he loved to tell and to hear a good joke, share a stiff drink with a golfing buddy, write a corny poem for each family occasion, enjoy slow-cooked vegetables at Balentines Cafeteria.

In the sixteen years since “Ganddaddy” died, I have wondered if some of his sharpness didn’t come from seeing, funeral after funeral, all the ways lives can end abruptly, unjustly. He knew better than most how little control each of us has. So he cared about managing the details. In every particular, he was determined to convey his respect for the families he served in his funeral business. Coming of age during the Depression, he learned to tend to his belongings, to tend to his friends, and to tend to his savings. And he appreciated people who did likewise. Which is why the one thing that always made sense to me about my grandfather was his love for Balentines Cafeteria, an old Raleigh institution that for nearly forty years served as a gathering place for many capital city families.

Located near the corner of Oberlin Road and Clark Avenue, Balentines was an anchor in Cameron Village, Willie York’s ambitious mixed-use development that opened in 1949. When the plan for Cameron Village was fully realized, it boasted 112 offices, 65 stores, 566 apartment units, and 100 private homes. In 1960, the cafeteria moved to “the Village” from its Fayetteville Street location, where it had been since 1950. Founder “Red” Balentine, who had previously owned and run the Green Grill on Salisbury Street and the Cardinal Room beneath his Fayetteville Street cafeteria, had little dining competition when he moved to Cameron Village. “The other establishments were delis and soda shops,” recalls Red’s son John, who joined the business in 1961 and took over the helm in 1974.

The cafeteria occupied a building at 410 Oberlin Road that was designed by modernist architect Leif Valand. It exemplified the Prairie School of architecture with its flat roof and its strong horizontal lines interrupted by a dramatic vertical column of glass that revealed the staircase. Textured brick and river rock formed the exterior. Because the building was, oddly, oriented perpendicular to the street, the only way to appreciate its geometry was to stand in the expansive parking lot that abutted it.

From the street, a stone wall displayed in elegant cursive letters “Balentines” and announced The Confederate House, the Balentine family’s below-ground, full-service restaurant that eventually became a banquet facility for hosting civic clubs and catering events. My grandfather would have missed the sad irony of the Confederate House located on a street named for the abolitionist-led Oberlin College and home to nearby Oberlin Village, one of Raleigh’s first freedmen communities.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that, though Ganddaddy loved Raleigh history, none of the striking facts of the building much mattered to him. As far as he was concerned, 410 Oberlin wasn’t “flashy” – his descriptor for so many things he hated.

... For Ganddaddy’s eightieth birthday, my parents honored his no-fuss preference with a midday brunch at the Confederate House, which was already decorated for the Christmas holidays – a practicality our frugal patriarch loved. He joked that all his friends would likely already have plans to come to Balentines that day anyway, making it less of a to-do in his mind that they had gone out of their way to celebrate his life.

... In the fall of 2011, driving down Oberlin Road, I came upon the demolition of the old Balentines building. I had to pull the car over and sit there a while, watching. The restaurant had closed its doors in 1999, but 410 Oberlin Road would always be Balentines to me. ...

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