Seize the Space Popular restaurant settles in Elizabeth BY TRICIA CHILDRESS
Outwit, outplay, outlast. The restaurant business is the ultimate survivor game with a notorious failure rate of 95 percent. Recently two local restaurateurs have overcome a series of plot twists that make some reality shows look wimpy by contrast.
“We’ve learned our lessons,” said Bonnie Warford, co-owner of Carpe Diem Restaurant. “Don’t move into an historic building next to a parking lot.”
Not only has her restaurant survived two moves, but it has prospered. The Carpe Diem saga began in September 1989 when sisters Warford and Tricia Maddrey opened the 53-seat restaurant in the historic Ratcliffe Florist building on South Tryon. Fourteen years ago, downtown streets were deserted by 6pm. There was no Blumenthal, BofA tower, bars. Folks didn’t eat dinner downtown unless they went to a private club or Slug’s at the top of a mid-rise office building. When folks did go out to eat, goat cheese salad and wines by the glass would not have been among the popular offerings. Maddrey and Warford helped to change some of that.
Warford came to Charlotte from Miami to attend Queens University (then Queens College). Eventually she became manager of Cafe Society, a small restaurant on Selwyn Avenue. Then she encouraged Maddrey to join her in Charlotte. Maddrey became a sous chef at the same restaurant. An opportunity arose in the Ratcliffe space after a natural foods restaurant failed. Maddrey and Warford seized the chance to open a restaurant featuring “New American” cuisine where people could “just enjoy themselves.” Warford said that the name of their restaurant was inspired by a philosophy of enjoying life and living life to the fullest.
Warford managed the front of the house, Maddrey worked in the kitchen, primarily as pastry chef. In 1989, lunch at Carpe Diem was crowded, dinner was less so. But during the 1990s, downtown was transformed; in fact, it became popular. In 1993 the sisters opened The Moon Room, a live entertainment bar next door to the restaurant.
Business at Carpe Diem was brisk, but competitors moved downtown by the boatload. National corporations like Morton’s of Chicago and Levy Restaurants (Bistro 100) opened large establishments. Then the Ratcliffe building property owners decided to redevelop the land. Would their historic building be torn down as so many others had in downtown Charlotte? In the end the decision was made to move, not destroy, the Ratcliffe building, but Carpe Diem would move out.
Warford and Maddrey found another unique setting at 401 East Trade on the corner of Brevard. This free standing building with brick walls, oak floors, and coffered ceiling had been built at the turn of the 20th century and was the former home of a pharmacy and grocery store. The top floors had been a hotel. The site underwent a remarkable transformation. Carpe Diem reopened in 2000. Back were the warm goat cheese salad and the comfortable atmosphere.
Then it was deja vu all over again. That building, and the others on that block, was in the way of the new arena, so it was slated to be demolished. And Carpe Diem was on the move again.
Down the street, Grubb Properties Inc. had bought property along the neglected portion of Elizabeth Avenue between Presbyterian Hospital and Central Piedmont Community College. The company planned a $240 million revitalization project that included 250,000 square-feet of retail, 340,000 square-feet of office, 800 units of residential, 150 hotel rooms, and 3,000 parking deck spaces. Grubb asked the sisters to relocate to Elizabeth. Maddrey said, “This is as close as we can get to downtown without being downtown and, besides, the building is already part of a planned development. We’ll be the first ones here, too.”
Maddrey and Warford have produced an art nouveau/Montmarte cafe. Said Maddrey, “We wanted to create a space that Charlotte could get excited about.” They hired Billy Pataete, a professional set designer for Boulevard Films, and architects Laughing Dog Studio for the interior design.
A series of arched wooden doors open the 60-seat bar area out to Elizabeth Avenue. Other design features include faux-finished walls, vaulted ceilings, subway tiles and hammered copper fixtures in the bathroom, writhing metal plant forms, and a kitchen, their largest yet, filled with new equipment.
Carpe Diem reopened on October 17. “We have loyal customers and we are thankful for that,” noted Maddrey. She also said that prices would remain the same. She continued, “We have been very successful in that price point. Even though it (the restaurant) may look upscale, we want people to know this is a casual and friendly place. We want people to know that we want them. That’s always been our main focus.”
Entrees range from $12.50 for shrimp and chicken arepas with cilantro pesto, chipotle coulis and avocado-onion salsa to $22 for a rib-eye steak with chipotle creamed leeks.
Chef John Blumreich, a graduate of the New England Culinary School, has been with Carpe Diem for three years. Maddrey still creates the desserts. The menu offers many new items and some long-time favorites: warm goat cheese salad; buttermilk fried chicken over greens; pistachio crusted pan-seared trout; and pork tenderloin with onion, prosciutto, haricot vert, and artichokes. Some dishes have morphed with time: the falafels contain more vegetables now and are served with curry mayonnaise. Specials will be offered every night as well.
No decision has been made whether to open for lunch. For now Maddrey and Warford just want folks to know where they are and that they’ve reopened. Again. Hopefully, three times will be the charm.