In a small house on the edge of town, up on the Weaverville Highway, there was a place called Margaret’s Steakhouse that operated from the 1940s until sometime in the ’70s. Margaret and her husband, Fleming, had converted their living room and dining room into an unbelievable little restaurant/club complete with a jukebox.
Now, Margaret knew how to cook a steak, and the world lusted for her complete recipe, which she never gave away. What I do know is that she first pan-seared the steak and then baked it in the oven. One of her key spices was nutmeg, and the final product made Ruth’s Chris steaks taste like they came from McDonald’s.
If you were a regular, you could also get a cocktail from the back room. The most exciting beverage sold there was Flem’s Cherry Bounce, made from pure corn whiskey and some combination of cherries. Oh, it went down so smooth, but the bounce came when you tried to walk down the steps on the way out.
Margaret’s was considered a great trysting place for those who wished to hide their little clandestine affairs. Margaret was very discreet, but one always took the chance that someone they knew was doing the same thing they were doing — or, worse, that their married friends would suddenly decide to go slumming that night.
The Caribou Club on Caribou Road was a great dance hall, and the young adult crowd flocked there. Ernest Hunnicutt ran a strict joint: Ladies were not allowed to wear pants (a new fad); it had to be either a dress or a skirt. But since this meant that most wore high heels, once inside they would change into little folding dancing slippers that they carried in their purse.
Ernest sort of subsidized this place with a little bookmaking and tip board sales in the front office.
In the late ’30s and ’40s, there was a swimming pool at the southwest corner of Beaver Lake. They had a pavilion there with a rocking jukebox, where folks danced and drank a little beer. I think pollution shut down the swimming pool, and the neighbors shut down the bar.
Jake Rusher ran the Royal Pines for many years, a very popular dance hall and swimming pool off Sweeten Creek Road. I remember that most of our Lee Edwards senior class went there after graduation. I don’t know what the legal age for alcohol was, but I am certain that we big-shot high school graduates exercised our rite of passage that night.
The Grove Park Inn terrace was elegant, popular with tourists and the carriage trade. They featured very good bands and expensive food. But if you wanted a drink, you still had to inelegantly carry in one or more bottles of liquor in a brown bag.
The most famous black nightclub was Doll’s on Beaumont Street. Black people were, of course, not admitted to white clubs, but white folks flocked to Doll’s as she had the best fried chicken in the kingdom. If by some chance you forgot to go by the ABC store or ran out of booze, Doll could always be counted on as a source of reliable supply.
The ABC enforcement officers knew she was selling and periodically raided the place, trying to find her stash of hooch, without success. Finally an undercover officer made a couple of buys and noticed that the bottle was always extremely cold: Doll was keeping it under the false bottom of her freezer box. BUSTED!
But if one wishes to stagger further down memory lane, one might also recall some of the other clubs and honky-tonks that kept us from getting bored here in “Sin City.”
There was the Casa Loma club, on top of the Plaza Theater downtown, which rocked all night. There was The Cat and the Fiddle and the Rathskellar, in the Tunnel Road shopping center. Buck Buchanan opened a great club with outstanding food next to his famous restaurant on Tunnel Road.
The Battery Park Hotel also had fine dining, and if one forgot his bottle, a subtle negotiation with a bellman would make one magically appear.
In response to my writings about our pristine Sin City, many kind readers have told me some great stories about our golden days of debauchery.
One of the best came from a friend who told me he went with his daddy to the Smoko gas station on Patton Avenue, where Ingles is now. He noticed a bunch of old, worn-out ladies’ purses hanging on the wall and, below them, a rack of worn-out automobile tires. After they left the store, he asked his daddy why they had those old pocketbooks and tires for sale and who would want to buy them.
His daddy told him that lots of people bought them because there was a gift inside. Each pocketbook contained a pint of moonshine, and each tire had a quart of it.
Now, I don’t care who you are: That is creative marketing.
Next time, we’ll talk about the world-famous Sky Club that many of you have been asking about.
Until then, Happy New Year.