Oh, heartburn. Restaurants open and inevitably close. But the announcement that 518 West Italian Cafe, anchor and igniter of the Glenwood South entertainment district, would abruptly shutter its Tuscan-inspired doors threw much of Raleigh into a melancholy dyspepsia.
Luck and timing are essential ingredients to any restaurant’s success. Opening in 1996, it seemed that everything about 518 hit the sweet spot. That the menu remained so popular is an impressive accomplishment. But the real victory – and loss – is that the cafe became a place that captured the bold, happy spirit of the times and helped define a city on the verge of transformational change.
“This restaurant really was the seed from which all of Glenwood South grew,” said Ann-Cabell Baum Andersen, who owns The Glenwood Agency real estate development firm and is one of the cafe’s most regular and loyal customers. She was having a farewell lunch with her friend, artist Joyce Watkins King, and vowed to duct-tape herself to the barstool. What would she do, she wondered aloud. Here Andersen got engaged to her husband, celebrated their rehearsal dinner and the after-party. Here is where she meets girlfriends for weekly drinks.
“How many times could I turn 29 again at that upstairs table!” she lamented.
The final days have had a lively, funereal air. Old friends flooded back for one last meal, which is exactly what Lisa Wojcik and Wendy Bloom, both project managers for Red Hat, were doing, shivering in the bitter rain before lunch on Monday.
They were young, single women when they first ate at 518. Each came here with boyfriends who then became husbands. Wojcik remembered purchasing her wedding dress at Victorian Rose Bridals in the old purple house across the street and then coming over for a celebratory lunch. Just recently, her parents took her 8-year-old son, Morgan, here for a fancy meal out after the symphony.
She found out the restaurant was closing from a food blogger’s post.
“It literally physically affected me,” she said.
Fare and flair
The same year that 518 opened, author Frances Mayes published “Under the Tuscan Sun,” and in another decade she herself would call the Triangle home. (And, it should be noted, Parker Kennedy opened the Tuscan Caffe Luna at downtown’s Moore Square, a restaurant which is still in swing and as delicious as ever.) Back then, the city was authentically boring. Although 42nd Street Oyster Bar across the tracks had long been a political institution, there was no Glenwood South district, just a street of small businesses, many struggling.
Almost instantly, 518’s sun-glazed walls and soaring ceiling of painted clouds became a scene to which Raleigh’s royalty flocked. Regulars included writer Kaye Gibbons in the heyday of her literary fame, and the pre-political John and Elizabeth Edwards. Tom Fetzer, then a bachelor mayor, courted dates or simply held court at the bar. The wait for 73, that tiniest table for two perched on the stairs, ran three hours on a weekend. That was the hot spot to pop the question, or to just pop eyes.
It wasn’t just swells who filled the tables, which fed 200 on a good Saturday night. Pizzettes under $10 kept young professionals coming back, and the familial atmosphere welcomed palates of all ages and tastes. Giant tables accommodated big business and family affairs; smaller ones tucked intimately into corners no doubt hosted affairs of other kinds. Innumerable deals were brokered, but more of us broke bread to the emotional passages that defined our lives. For its fans, this became the place for proms, birthdays and baptismal brunches; the announcements of pregnancies, new jobs and adventures; the demise of marriages; the healing closure of old wounds. It was the kind of place you could debut the new dress or drown your troubles in your favorite jeans and moth-eaten sweater. The waiters never judged, even when your lunch partner ate nine pieces of bread and asked for more.
Something about the environment fed our hunger for urbanity, sophistication and fun. And how it did spread. Soon after came, among others, Enoteca Vin (with young chefs Andrea Reusing and Ashley Christensen), the Hibernian Pub and Sullivan’s Steakhouse. The range of eating and drinking options drew even more people, but along that stretch of Glenwood, 518 led the way.
It brought fare and flair, a little La Dolce Vita to a swath of town just beginning to blossom. Aglow in the evening, it maintained the air of a great party. The menu inspired us to try new things. We planted rosemary in our yards, troweled the walls in Venetian plaster. It was also the first restaurant to ban smoking, so some of us gave that up.
Which explains, in part, the sadness. Who could blame the Chapel Hill restaurant group that owns it for seizing an opportunity? (Close-mouthed about the deal, the owners have noted only that a client wishes to lease the property and move with lightspeed.)
John Hood, president of the John William Pope Foundation and a pizzette loyalist, has been a regular since the beginning.
“I’m a free market man, you know, so this isn’t a battle between my head and heart. It’s a battle between my heart and stomach.”
Those who wait
Count among the mourners more than diners. For the staff, 518 was a transformational place. Many people worked for years, decades. Others cycled in and out as they sought their way into adulthood.
“I probably worked here three different times,” said Kris Balic, who served tables on opening night and now at 40 is an external communications specialist for SAS Institute. “People would ask why I was going back, but I could think here,” she said.
She was there Friday evening, a little more than a week from closing. A dozen former employees had gathered to reminisce and enjoy their favorite dishes. Men and women in their 40s, now deep into other careers, adventures or parenthood, they formed friendships here that endure. In so many words, each echoed the same sentiment: In this building they grew up, among these people they found their best selves.
Oh, the celebrities they waited on. Mike Wallace, Morgan Freeman, Natalie Merchant, Will Ferrell. They remembered the night a group of women won a contest to enjoy an awkward dinner with Clay Aiken and his mother.
The nonfamous became celebrities, too. For Lauren Reid, who worked there for 10 years, it was the genteel elderly couple who dined every Friday evening at 6:30 in the pond room, table 57. When he was no longer able to drive, his wife did. When she could no longer drive, their daughter brought them. And when they stopped coming, the staff mourned.
The group spilled wine and secrets: those romantic rosemary bushes? They flourished but were unsavorily fertilized. More than a few times, servers recalled, diners tore off branches on their way inside and requested the herb be served on their entrees. Servers were discreet but only used herbs from the kitchen.
Denise Gossett worked here from 1997 until 2004 as waitress, food runner, hostess, bartender and dining room manager. She made it no farther than the bar before a family stopped her. They told her she had been their favorite server and that, in fact, they used her name as the password for one of their online accounts.
518 launched many a diverse career. Brian Tavener, a 2000 Parks Scholar at N.C. State University, tended bar. Now living in Boston, he is a member of the Blue Man Group and owns his own record label. Designer Holly Aiken got her first restaurant job there as a college student. She remembered the restaurant still under construction, the job interview taking place on overturned 5-gallon drums.
Former pastry chef Janet Coleman, now at Faire Steak and Seafood, arrived and introduced herself with humble pride: “I’m the brownie.”
“She’s also the banana brioche,” another added.
The current staff has had little time to mourn, busy as they are.
Robert Caldwell, 33, who has been waiting tables for about a year, paused momentarily last Friday night by the wood-fired bar. He swears he is not given to tears, but he had to admit it had been a misty-eyed week. For him, the closing is so much more than a job loss. He started coming to the restaurant with his parents when he was a child. He brought his prom date here. “Leesville High School,” he said. “We sat upstairs at the chef’s table: I had the baked pasta, and my date had the lasagna.”
They will close the place and then move on. Some of the hosts are taking the koi home as pets. A fire sale on wine Monday evening cleared out a significant portion of their cellar. After so many requests, the recipe for the whole-wheat fettuccine was posted on the Facebook fan page.
After the last patron is served Sunday, the doors will be locked to the public. The staff will prepare and sit down to a final meal, family style.
Even the liveliest banquets end. Reluctantly, we push away from the table.
About the writer
Mary E. Miller, who lives in Raleigh, is a regular contributor to The N&O and Walter magazine, writing previously about allowing her daughter to wear her wedding dress in a school play and about Betty Smith, author of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and her life in Chapel Hill.
Miller, a former columnist for this newspaper, was a features reporter when 518 opened. She wrote at the time: “Here on this corner, at this moment in time, Raleigh is no longer what it was or seems to be, but what it might be in another five or 10 years: A metropolitan, cosmopolitan city with a real-live downtown restaurant life.”
518 West is owned by the Chapel Hill Restaurant Group.
The company also owns Spanky’s, Squids, 411 West in Chapel Hill, and Mez and Page Road Grill in Durham. Much of what’s on the menu at 518 can be found at its older but smaller sister, 411 West.