Regulars love to dine here

aweigl@newsobserver.comOctober 5, 2013 

Most weekdays, if Raleigh lawyer Gary Groon isn’t in court, he can be found eating lunch at Pharoah’s Grill, a hot dog and hamburger joint at Raleigh’s North Hills shopping center.

And Groon, 53, will be eating the same thing every time: a plain hamburger on a bun, no condiments whatsoever, French fries and a Diet Coke. The cashier only has to push one button on the register to ring up Groon’s order; it has been programmed into the machine.

If it is a Thursday night, Tom and Jane Robinson can likely be found at the bar at the Fairview Dining Room at Durham’s Washington Duke Inn. What they choose to eat varies, but the bartender knows he will always order a glass of red wine and she will have a glass of Shelton Vineyards chardonnay.

Then there is Lee Pavao, who dines so often at Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner that the bartenders know exactly how to make his favorite cocktail: a martini with very cold Bombay gin, practically no vermouth, three olives on the side. Again, there’s one button on the cash register to ring up Pavao’s martini.

All of these folks have discovered the pleasures of becoming a restaurant regular. The bartenders know what they’re drinking. The hostess escorts them to their favorite table. The waitstaff knows their names and asks about their children. The chef may send out something special from the kitchen: an appetizer, a dessert or a taste of something new on the menu.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote about the joys of being a regular instead of hopping from restaurant to restaurant, as he did for years as a dining critic.

“What you have with a restaurant that you visit once or twice is a transaction,” Bruni wrote. “What you have with a restaurant that you visit over and over is a relationship.”

Every restaurant has its regulars. At The Mecca, regulars make up a who’s who of North Carolina law and politics. One day in late September, The Mecca’s matriarch Floye Dombalis said they served former Mayor Charles Meeker, current Mayor Nancy McFarlane, former Govs. Jim Hunt and Mike Easley, as well as all the justices on the state Supreme Court, who dine there every day they are hearing oral arguments.

All restaurants depend on those regulars.

Or as George McNeill, co-owner of the two locations of Pharoah’s Grill, explained: “The 80-20 rule. Eighty percent of your profit comes from 20 percent of your customers. These are the people who come back all the time. They are your bread and butter.”

McNeill hires employees who can help him retain regular customers. His general manager, wearing a suit, tie and pocket square, stops to talk to diners at several tables at Pharoah’s only other restaurant location, a spot adjacent to the N.C. Museum of History. His cashier is trained to make eye contact with everyone waiting in line. And a former cashier, Debbie Robbins, became known for remembering hundreds of customers’ names.

And then there are restaurants whose regulars encourage others to become regulars, like at Pazzo! in Chapel Hill. A decade ago, chef Seth Kingsbury took over Pazzo!, a sit-down restaurant that serves a full seasonal menu on one side of the dining room and more casual pizza-place items on the other. Kingsbury wanted it to become a neighborhood bar and restaurant for the Southern Village community and beyond. And if you talk to his regulars, he has succeeded.

“We really enjoy the people who go there,” said Don Tise, a Chapel Hill architect who along with his wife, Susan, dines there once or twice a week.

That sentiment was echoed by Bernie Herman, a UNC professor, who can be seen there most Mondays with his wife, Becky. She usually orders the fish. He can’t resist the roast chicken.

“You would think roast chicken is easy; but to get it right is not easy, and he has got it down,” Bernie Herman said of Kingsbury’s dish.

Last Monday the Hermans sat at the bar with another pair of regulars: Lisa and Steve Robinson, a UNC assistant basketball coach.

The Robinsons eat there so often, Steve Robinson calls it “my ‘Cheers’ bar.”

The couples became good friends after meeting at Pazzo!, and even went together to the recent Maceo Parker, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic concert in Chapel Hill.

“I love the relationships that we build and the friendships that we have seen blossom,” Kingsbury said.

And Kingsbury said he appreciates the vibe that the regulars creates in his restaurant: “It’s a special feeling when they are all in here together.”

The devotion is mutual. Steve Robinson recalled a night when he really wanted to order a steak, but Kingsbury had run out by the time he and his wife arrived for dinner.

Kingsbury told him he’d be right back, walked over to nearby Weaver Street Market and bought a steak to cook for Robinson.

With that kind of service, Robinson asked: “Why shouldn’t I come back?”

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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