Forget your chain stereotypes. The newest 131 Main delivers on all fronts
1315 East Blvd.
In certain snobbish food circles, there's a stigma attached to chain restaurants. I wonder how many of these folks have gleefully sucked back martinis and steaks at The Palm or The Capital Grille. Just because a concept has multiple locations in no way means that it can't deliver an excellent culinary experience.
A solid example is the newest 131 Main Restaurant, located in Dilworth at East and Scott. Partners Mike Vaughn, Joe Douglas, and Chris Carlson have two successful locations—in bustling Blakeney and Huntersville—and another slated for Raleigh next year. These restaurants are successful because the partners are not restaurateurs in the classic sense. They are operators. Vaughn and Douglas made their bones in the Houston's restaurant chain, which is well respected in the industry as a pioneer in the "upscale casual" segment. That's where they learned how to run a restaurant like a business. And their decision making in the renovation of this seemingly cursed location (Red Star and Patou both failed here) has been spot on. They added much-needed complimentary valet parking for lunch and dinner and funded a smart restaurant redesign that maximized the large, 11,000-square-foot space, bringing the kitchen out front and adding a large granite bar area front and center. Cool browns and beiges abound with large windows that allow streaming natural light during the day, and spot lighting that coolly illuminates the space at night. The latter is when you'll find the place at its busiest, with groups of younger and older professionals and couples mingling at the well-tended bar for a drink before dinner.
|The Dilworth location of this small local chain features well-executed American fare. Meat entrées grilled over hickory coals are standouts.
Double Cut Pork Chop
The menu is small, but it includes a well-chosen variety of starters ($8-$13), sandwiches, salads, and entrées ($17-$23). Described as "fresh American food," everything at 131 Main is made in house with bold flavors and a smart attention to detail. Cast iron scallops arrive, atop a creamy polenta cake, seared, smoky, and crisp outside and tender inside. The starter is framed by a bracing lemon butter sauce. The tender petals of the signature grilled artichoke are punched up with a tangy remoulade. And please try the cast iron cornbread. Caramel-colored, it arrives in an eight-inch cast iron skillet and is brimming with soul. At once crunchy and tender, it is served with a bit of honey that brings out the caramelized sweetness of the corn and can suffice as a starter on its own, or as an accompaniment to any of the entrées.
Main courses take the form of well-sourced beef, pork, poultry, and fish selections, many expertly prepared over hickory coals. While a little more difficult to operate than gas—as noted by the grill chef, who was breathlessly jockeying steaks, ribs, and fish while continually adding hickory wood—the flavor of cooking anything over live coals is unmatched. 131 Main is to be respected for this extra effort alone. A standout is the double cut pork chop. Standing a full three inches tall, it's incredibly tender for a pork loin, partly due to being cured in house, then simply grilled to the perfect temperature. Pork can be tricky, but in the hands of this expert grill man, it sings.
There are sides available on this semi-à la carte menu (some entrées are paired with sides by design, and some are not) with standards like mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables, but also eye-catching rarities like wild rice salad and, of all things, deviled eggs, which are tangy, nostalgic, and delicious. For lunch ($8-$13) try the roast beef sandwich, served on a toasted hoagie roll with au jus and horseradish. The tender prime rib is shaved so paper thin that it almost liquefies in your mouth. A Thursday soup special ($5) is wholesome and deep, studded with lemony artichokes and mushrooms, perfumed by a dose of heady tarragon. The wine list is solid and affordable, with a notable selection of half bottles. The huge desserts, made on site, include tempting—if basic—selections like Key lime pie, brownie à la mode, and banana cream pie.
There were some annoyances. The specials, including lunch features and soups, are listed on the menu by the day of the week, which strikes me as formulaic and amateurish. I wish the chef could stretch out a little and show his creativity. Overall, the place is a bit too corporate, with swarming floor managers chatting in their headsets, gliding about like sharks. To be fair, the service is for the most part very friendly and attentive, but it sort of has a corporate feel. I don't think that 131 Main will ever be considered "freewheeling," but it would be nice if the restaurant would find a way to balance its corporate stuffiness with its considerable talents. Maybe a group tie loosening is in order?
Still, fight the urge to classify this restaurant and go enjoy the space, a drink, and the food before passing judgment.