Headlamp lighting his way, a lone runner — jogger actually — rounded a turn off Fourth Street headed into the rabbit warren of West End streets. Blissful solitude woven into his morning routine, no doubt.
One short block away, a morning routine of a different sort was unfolding. Regular diners and stunned locals spooked by COVID-19 filed into the Lighthouse Restaurant one final time, a last call for bacon, eggs and toast served up for a fair price in the dwindling number of local institution eateries.
“What are you gonna do,” asked Samuel McKnight of a fast-moving waitress who had paused just long enough to refill a coffee pot.
She was hustling, one of two waitresses working the morning, scurrying to marry the demand of hand-written orders with a dwindling supply of pancakes. No time to think, much less chat.
“I have no idea,” she said, giving the simplest answer to a straightforward question before flying off to take another order.
A lot of customers surely felt the same way.
The history of the Lighthouse is similarly straightforward. A plain black-and-white plaque by the front door begins to explain it.
Lighthouse Restaurant … Established 1954 … HOURS 7:00 am - 3:00 p.m. Monday-Friday
As the sign says, it was opened that year by a man named George Pappas. Another owner, Alex Fragakis, took it over in the ‘50s, and brothers Nick and Louis Doumas became sole owners in the ‘70s when Fragakis retired. A new generation of the Doumas family took over in recent years.
The news that it was closing hit hard. A small paper sign taped inside spells out why.
“We would like to thank all of our customers for their patronage over the past 66 years,” it read. “Unfortunately due to the extended dining restrictions and not being able to generate enough take out business to compensate for the loss of seating, we will be closing after today.”
McKnight, who was eating with Austin Frank before another long work day, allowed that while he was saddened by the news, he wasn’t terribly surprised.
“Not really,” he said. “Not with the shutdowns and restrictions and all that stuff.”
Indeed, this latest closing is just the latest example of stressors and strains being dropped on the backs of those who work for tips and hourly wages rather than being insulated from economic catastrophe by quarterly dividends and still-fat stock portfolios.
Most of those who took seats early Friday at the counter were regulars like Frank and McKnight. Working people and small business owners familiar with busting knuckles (and backs) while running the same rat race as the waitresses and busboys they called by first name.
What’re you going to do? What’s anybody going to do?
“Dunno. Biscuitville?” Frank said.
Not the same, nowhere near. And he and McKnight knew that.
“These are really nice folks,” McKnight said. “Like family. I hate it for them.”
No way to operate
To no one’s surprise, the joint was jumping early Friday.
A small line formed not long after opening. Every other booth was marked by a hand-lettered “Skip” sign and tape marking them as mandated, socially distanced No Go zones.
The Lighthouse closed in March as ordered by Gov. Roy Cooper. It opened again in July, but struggled.
Half-capacity is no way to operate, especially a restaurant running on the thinnest of margins.
A raging COVID-19 virus ate further into the bottom line. Suddenly, the Lighthouse — a proud, no frills family diner — found itself in difficulty.
Adding to the shock was the sense that, on paper anyhow, the Lighthouse appeared to be well-positioned.
Because while the restaurant remained largely the same, the neighborhood surrounding it did not.
Businesses like Fritts Motors which had for decades occupied prime spots were elbowed aside. Modern Chevrolet, which had been located a literal stone’s throw away at the corner of Broad and Fourth, relocated on its own to make room for the first wave of downtown condos.
Multi-million dollar apartment buildings, complete with such amenities as dog runs, covered parking and swell pools, sprang up all around the Lighthouse.
Surely the millennials and newly minted empty nesters shelling out more than $1,000 a month for rent would flock to a place famous for a $6 omelette with a side of biscuits and gravy.
That didn’t come to pass, at least not in an amount necessary to keep the doors open.
Maybe, just maybe, the old Lighthouse can one day become retro and cool, re-invented the same way that Recreation Billiards over on Fourth Street managed to transform from a blue-collar beer joint into a hip, two-level craft beer mecca.
“We don’t know what the future holds,” owner Steve Doumas told a colleague Thursday. “As the five owners, we haven’t sat down and decided where we are headed next. We might possibly look at reopening and reinventing the Lighthouse in the future.”
That’s a question for another day. Friday, the past — and present — mattered more.
“I’ve been eating breakfast and lunch here for 34 years. Another stand-by closing its doors, the same thing as Paul’s Fine (Italian) Dining,” said regular Robert Burchette, referring to another multi-generational local restaurant that closed earlier this summer. “I guess the younger people just don’t like the old family places like we do.”
Tastes constantly evolve. Change cannot be stopped or slowed, no matter how much we might like it to be so.
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