Stoney Knob Cafe

Flavor: Mediterranean and American, among others

Ambiance: Eclectic

Service: Sometimes spotty

Though it may not seem readily apparent at first, there is rhyme and reason to the concept of Weaverville’s Stoney Knob Cafe.

“Eclectic” is perhaps the word that comes closest to summing up the restaurant, both in vibe and in flavor. The decor ranges from second-hand chic to warmly elegant, and the menu meanders all over the globe, though it comes to rest most frequently in the sun-drenched Mediterranean – the hereditary homeland of the restaurant’s owners, the Dermas brothers. At night, Stoney Knob serves wraps and gyros, burgers, pasta and pizza, in addition to Greek desserts served with Italian gelato. For brunch, there are breakfast burritos and waffles, and for lunch, there are paninis and fresh fish, among other offerings.

Perhaps it is this “something for everyone” approach that has garnered such rave reviews from those who frequent the place.

“Have you tried the Stoney Knob?” a nice barista in Black Mountain asked me after she discovered my passion for food. She then proceeded to sing its praises, a tune I’ve heard echoed about town. A co-worker can’t get enough of the steaks; a friend that used to live nearby the restaurant blamed his ever-expanding spare tire on his unwavering addiction to the panini sandwiches; and another acquaintance raves about the brunch, making the trip up Merrimon Avenue to Stoney Knob on many a Sunday.

So, on an unseasonably warm fall evening, my Picky Companion and I secured a reservation and headed north to see what all the fuss is about.

The parking lot was filled to the brim with cars, and the interior of the restaurant was bustling – not to mention the ever-popular patio, which usually dances to the tune of live music on weekends. Though we were somewhat drawn to that side of the restaurant, it was the homey, flickering glow of the gas fireplace dancing on the deep red walls in the far dining room that beckoned most seductively. Arranged around the beautifully tiled hearth are several mismatched chairs and a coffee table laden with material perfectly suited for perusing while waiting for a seat to open up. I chose the overstuffed, oversized leather throne to cushion my posterior and scanned a book about wine.

Our table was ready shortly, though I was somewhat disappointed to find that we had been seated in the central “diner” area of the restaurant. It’s a bit on the noisy side, and centrally located amidst the hustle and bustle of the nighttime action, but it works – especially if one wishes to engage in a little kitchen voyeurism.

At this point in the game, my Picky Companion was noticeably disturbed by the somewhat busy and eclectic decor, shifting uncomfortably in his seat and muttering something barely audible about rummage sales, so I ordered him some wine. Apparently, “eclectic” is not for everyone. There is indeed something funkily odd about the way the place is set up – the Last Supper is framed on the far wall next to a large African mask, bull horns jut from the wall over the door, while glass-beaded chandeliers dangle over each of the booths, barely above head level. It’s somewhat as though a classic diner and a Haight Street second-hand boutique had a slightly weird child. It could be fun, it could be a bit too much, depending on your mood.

We checked out the Stoney Knob’s “hip” wine list (it is labeled as such), and found a selection that traversed the globe as well. Most notable is the small assortment of Greek wines offered, of which the Antoniou Santorini was the hands-down favorite, mostly for it’s uncanny ability as a companion to the mild feta the restaurant serves.

We took a while to pore over the menu, especially since nothing initially grabbed us. There are several classic shrimp dishes, such as the Garides Saganaki – a dish of shrimp, tomatoes and feta served over orzo – and the Salata Helios, a classic Greek salad of chopped Mediterranean vegetables and cheese. Wraps go South of the border, however, with sides of guacamole and salsa, and fillings like mango shrimp and chipotle chicken.

We ordered the Greek Sampler, a “Pandora’s box of Greek appetizers,” the menu promised – though I seem to recall Pandora’s Box as being something you generally want to avoid opening. The dish was absolutely enormous, laden with a slew of “marinated” vegetables (“pickled” would have been a bit more accurate), a good handful of Kalamata olives, a tzatziki sauce, pita bread, and the aforementioned feta. A trio of filo packages containing various fillings dominated the plate – a spanakopitakia (spinach), a cheese tyropitakia, and crab, artichoke and apple pitakias. They were all good, though the artichoke overwhelmed all other flavors in its little package. Picky complained briefly of the “weak” flavor of the tzatziki, but the whole shebang was a good enough nosh.

Our appetizer was so large that we really could have stopped there, but we forged ahead. Picky ordered the special – a trout filet with a tomato/rosemary sauce over saffron risotto – and I ordered the braised lamb shank on the server’s recommendation.

Our entrees arrived fairly quickly. The lamb shank was quite succulent, and was indeed “tender off the bone” as the menu had promised. It was rich in flavor, well-spiced, and deeply comforting, especially on its bed of home-style mashed potatoes. It was quite simple – meat and potatoes – and perhaps could have benefited from less meat (there were two of the hefty shanks in the bowl) and more vegetables.

Picky merely, well, picked over his entree. He complained that the trout was overcooked, the risotto too full of cheese. He searched for the reason to describe why the dish wasn’t quite right, but couldn’t put his finger on it. The Caesar salad seemed somehow askew, as well – perhaps it was the all-too-pallid color of the romaine, the surfeit of cheese and the dearth of dressing.

I returned the next day to get a carry-out lunch to see if I could find something to wow me, but didn’t quite succeed. I ordered a dish of angel-hair pasta tossed with smoked salmon, scallions, feta and a tomato cream sauce. The pasta was unfortunately mushy, and the sauce tasted strongly of wine. I must admit to consuming quite a bit of it, however – the salmon was plenty tasty.

You can’t win everyone over all the time, I suppose. But with an obviously reverent crowd packing the restaurant day in and day out, who cares? It’s a fun place, and while its approach to food might benefit from closer attention to detail, it has most everyone feeling pleased, a sentiment that was echoed in an Xpress interview with the Dermas brothers back in 2002, when the restaurant was “reborn” into its current incarnation. “Everyone seems to have a good time when they come in,” noted John Dermas. “That’s what we want – people having fun, having a good meal, being entertained; the whole nine yards.” If that is the core concept of Stoney Knob, it is a good one, indeed.

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