Saunders: Loss of Zydeco a blow to good eating

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJanuary 26, 2014 

You could only eat lunch at Zydeco Downtown restaurant once, maybe twice a week. That’s because the food was so good, so cheap and so plentiful that it was hard not to hurt yourself on its buffet.

Now you can’t eat there at all.

Like all good things eventually must, the downtown restaurant, the home of the $8 soul food buffet – $10 if you had a soda – has ended.

On a frigid day last week, my walking buddy and I sauntered down to our favorite haunt for some un- haute cuisine, thinking of the damage we were going to do to the piles of fried fish, vat of creamy macaroni and cheese, and mounds of chicken that were always there to greet us.

On this day, though, we were greeted a block away by a sign in the window informing us that the building was now available for rent.

Oy. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I always look on the bright side of life. Many of you, in fact, often refer to me in letters and emails as “B.S.,” which I presume means “bright side.”

Well, the bright side of my favorite restaurant going belly up, I tried to console myself between sobs, was that maybe now my belly will go down. Don’t bet on it, though.

Rick Bragg, the former New York Times writer from Alabama, wrote a memorable story in GQ magazine a dozen years ago about Southern men and Southern food. It began: “I always wanted some washboard abs. But I also always seem to want some baby back ribs. Washboard abs are hard to get. Baby back ribs are $6.99.”

Hear, hear.

Sure, you could go into Zydeco with the best of intentions, vowing to eat only from the “healthy” side of the menu – meaning the baked chicken and fish, the salads and collard greens – but invariably a voice would whisper in your ear “C’mon, man. Life’s too short to not eat macaroni and cheese when it’s laid out right in front of you like this.”

That’s when the aforementioned macaroni and cheese, fried fish and fried chicken would somehow just jump onto your plate. Oh, and don’t forget the yams. Lord have mercy, don’t forget the yams.

After two or three visits to the steam table, you’d have a big decision to make: whether to call a cab to take you the five blocks back to work or whether to waddle back on foot while deluding yourself that you were somehow walking off some of the 3,000 calories you’d just consumed.

As if sensing your distress and inability to move, the waiters would then come around to your table offering desserts such as bread pudding or cobbler. Man, I mean.

Zydeco was owned and operated by Antwan Harris, a two-time, Super Bowl-winning retired football player with the New England Patriots. New England, he said, is where he got the idea for his venture. “In Boston, I used to go to lounges a lot to relax. You could get appetizers and drinks. Everybody was sitting beside each other and talking and mingling, and I thought I could bring that type of atmosphere here to Raleigh,” he said.

He eventually realized that bringing “that vibe ... wouldn’t pay the rent,” he said, so he scrapped the sofas and overstuffed lounge chairs that he had when he opened and decided to concentrate on the nightclub and the food.

And boy, did he and Mr. Charles – the head chef – concentrate on the food.

You know the old advertising adage that most restaurants sell the sizzle, not the steak?

Not Zydeco. The food, not overpriced ambiance, was what people came for. I mean, for a couple of years there, you could get shrimp and grits every Thursday. All you could eat. For $8. Sounds exactly like heaven, doesn’t it?

No, literally: Unlimited, properly seasoned shrimp and grits sounds like what would be available to someone who has lived a good life and is being rewarded for it in the hereafter.

Harris had to stop serving them, he told me about a year ago, when the price of the high-quality shrimp rose and he didn’t like the taste and texture of the cheaper shrimp.

Rumors in the Twitterverse that the restaurant was forced to close because of a subpar health code rating were not just false but probably maliciously so. Andre Pierce, environmental health and safety director for Wake County Environmental Services, told me “We inspected it in November, and we inspected it in December. Both times, the restaurant received a ‘B’ grade,” he said.

I read the health code reports and saw nothing that would’ve made me or most anyone else stop greasing there.

Harris said he’s going to “take some time off from the restaurant business” but that he is starting another enterprise this week.

Alluding to differences of opinion between his former landlord and himself – the landlord thought the rent needed raising, Harris thought it needed lowering – he said “If I can find a building that I can buy and own, I will reopen as Zydeco Downtown, uptown or near downtown. I’m not in a rush, but the next time, it’s going to be for the food.”

To Zydeco customers, it always was. or 919-836-2811

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