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Covid-19 and the need for social distancing have forced some Charlotte-area restaurants to close, but just off Beatties Ford Road in the city’s Historic West End, one restaurant owner has used these trying times to… well, try again.
Laurene’s Cafeteria opened its doors on Aug. 1, about seven years after an earlier effort failed. It’s located at 1821 Bishop Madison Lane (the former site of McDonald’s Cafeteria) — about 3.2 miles from Hornets Nest Park, an ideal spot to enjoy takeout.
The cafeteria is named after Laurene W. Perkins, the owner’s grandmother. It boasts of serving “authentic Southern cuisine” with a New Orleans-style flair.
General Manager Tao Sauls said many of the menu items can be traced to Perkins, a Fayetteville native who bonded with her grandson, Nicholas Perkins, over good food and a common love for cooking. (Nicholas Perkins owns Laurene’s Cafeteria.)
“She’s made a huge impact on his life,” Sauls said. “She raised him, she took care of him, she gave him knowledge in the kitchen.”
Sauls said Laurene’s Cafeteria gets much of its food products locally. He calls it a “100% scratch kitchen.”
Laurene’s Cafeteria was open for just three months in 2013 before it closed. Sauls said the lessons learned during that short-lived venture will help the business succeed this time around.
“There’s no right time to open a business,” he said. “We feel like this is our time, and we’re very confident that we’re going to continue to get the support of the community.”
He added: “In the middle of a pandemic, people want to have some good food. Food brings everyone together, so why not do it now?”
In a nod to Covid-19 and safety concerns, masks are required inside the restaurant, and signs are everywhere reminding patrons to stay at least 6 feet apart. The restaurant also accepts online and call-in orders for curbside pick-up, and Sauls said he hopes to soon offer a delivery option.
We ordered some shrimp and grits, plus an order of croaker (cooked to order) with two sides — lima beans and cabbage. Then we shoved off for Hornets Nest Park, a straight shot up Beatties Ford Road.
Hornets Nest is a 140-acre park owned by Mecklenburg County. Its amenities are numerous — softball fields, tennis courts, disc golf, picnic shelters, walking trails and much more. But there’s also plenty of shaded solitude for those looking to enjoy an outdoor meal.
Brandi Williams, a Charlotte native, recalls that back in the late 1980s and continuing into the mid-1990s, Hornets Nest was the place to see and be seen for Black teens in west Charlotte.
“On Sundays, especially after it got warmer, people would cruise down Beatties Ford Road and end up at Hornets Nest,” she said by phone. “They’d park, cruise through, cut their music on, open their trunks — people were just out having a good time and enjoying each other’s company.”
At times, she said, the Sunday traffic would stretch all the way back down Beatties Ford Road past Sunset Road to LaSalle Street, which eventually led neighbors to complain and police to crack down.
Even now, Hornets Nest remains popular with families on Charlotte’s west side. On late afternoons and weekends, it’s common to see friends and families having picnics or cookouts near one of the park’s covered shelters.
On a recent workday around lunchtime, the park was peaceful. A woman walked with two small children along the park’s lake, which has a fishing pier. Two men played disc golf, pulling small carts behind them. And couple strolled beneath the pines and hardwoods.
We found a picnic table under some trees near the lake to enjoy the solitude… along with our shrimp & grits, croaker, lima beans, sweet tea and cabbage.