June 28, 2018
“This is the Stammtisch,” said Svend Deal, as we sat down at a sturdy wooden table in the back dining room of Sir Edmond Halley’s. The “regular’s table” has been in this space for some 30 years—a relic from the German restaurant that was here before. “I could take you through and tell you the story behind everything here,” Deal said. I took his offer literally and we got up to examine the memorabilia arranged throughout the restaurant: European flags, signed photographs, retro beer ads, handmade game tables— there’s an anecdote behind each piece. A love of history permeates this place. After eating and drinking at this pub for a decade, I’m finally going to get the full run-down, an unabridged history from the man who lived it.
The story and the appeal of Sir Ed’s are inseparable from its unlikely, tucked-away location. Originally the basement of a Hickory Ham store, the space underneath Park Road Shopping Center opens up to a back parking lot. The entrance sits in the shadow of a caged pedestrian bridge, painted green, that spans from the front of the shopping center to the mid-century modern apartments next door. (Deal tells me the walkway was built for the elderly residents of what was then a retirement home, now a “co-op living community.”)
When Hickory Ham went out of business in the late ‘70s, an arcade occupied this odd corner for a few years and eventually caught the eye of Bob Schweikert. “A full-blown German,” as Deal described him, Schweichert had a famous family bratwurst recipe and a line of food-carts around town called “Tasty Brats.” In 1985, he bought the space and opened his own, full-blown German restaurant: The Bavarian House.
Over the following decade, it became a local watering hole. By the mid-’90s, two of his regulars included Deal, then a recent UNC graduate, and his friend Tobin McAfee, a classically trained chef. In college Deal had played rugby and traveled the globe extensively. He fell in love with the pub as a place where neighbors popped in on weeknights and wiled away Sunday afternoons over pints and football.
After 12 years of running The Bavarian House by himself, Schweichert was tired and eyeing retirement. Deal and McAfee were young, ambitious, and serious about food, and began toying with a concept for a restaurant. Starbucks had popularized the idea of “the third space,” an auxiliary living room. To Deal, this sounded a lot like a pub. As they scrutinized Charlotte’s limited food scene, they saw an unfilled niche. It sounds unremarkable from a 2018 perspective, but the idea of a nice dinner (i.e. quality food) in a casual, third-space environment was unheard of at the time.
“You could go to Providence Sundries or Hooters and have a burger and wings. Or you could go to the Fig Tree or the Townhouse or one of those places, and you had to dress up. And that was it, there was no middle ground,” Deal said.“…What would be a better mechanism to drive that than a pub theme?”
By 1995, Deal and McAfee acquired the needed financing for their restaurant. With McAfee as head chef and Deal managing front-of-the-house, they opened Sir Edmond Halley’s Restaurant and Freehouse the following year. The first person Deal hired was Jeff Roberts, who has been the bar manager ever since and is now one of Deal’s business partners. In its over 20 years of existence, Sir Ed’s has had only eight bartenders.
Initially it was the bar that paid the bills. The owners installed a “revolutionary” tap system, a coolant line to keep beer from getting foamy, and an expensive CO2/nitro mixer to give each draft the correct gas charge. This dedication to the craft, long before the age of micro-brews and gastro-pubs, earned them Guinness’ “perfect pint” award, as well as a loyal clientele ranging from Irish immigrants to Panthers players to British composer Tim Rice during his annual trips to NC.
But it wasn’t long until the fledgling pub started making waves with their food. McAfee liked to experiment, and his menu was “even more eclectic,” than it is today, said Deal. For instance, when they heard of an ostrich farm in South Carolina, it wasn’t long before ostrich appeared on the menu. Deal would go to the farmer’s market, call the fish dealer, assemble ingredients, and type up a brand new menu every day. They were in their late 20s, with ripening confidence and a complete disregard for practicality. “We thought we knew the whole thing. Everyone was looking at us like, You’re two kids! You’re idiots!”
Eventually they had to curb their creativity or risk burning themselves out. “Ultimately we realized it’s not a good way to do business unless you’re charging a fortune. And we weren’t. The bar was paying for everything,” Deal said. The upside: all that experimenting had fleshed out their “greatest hits.” They put together a menu that was consistently good across the board.
The Closing and Reopening
By 2002, after six years in business, Deal had reached a crossroads. There were four owners by now, which was one too many. He sold his share of the business to McAfee and continued on as a bartender for the next two years, eventually leaving for law school at UNC. Deal would chart a successful law career, but life would circle him back to Sir Ed’s soon enough.
In 2010, McAfee came into money problems and fell behind on taxes. With the writing on the wall, he sold his ownership—including the intellectual property rights to every menu in Sir Ed’s history—back to his old partner Deal. Now an established lawyer, Deal was uniquely positioned to help pull Sir Ed’s out of this crisis. “There were plans to try to keep it open, if you will,” he said. “And as a lawyer, I was like, ‘Why would we want to do that? We can let the (State) Department of Revenue clean the slate for us.’ And that’s what we did.”
The abrupt closing of Sir Ed’s stunned the community that had grown up around it. To recoup the value of the back-taxes owed, the state “came in and took everything, including some of the [memorabilia] that was bolted down.” Deal knew it all could be repurchased at auction.
In the meantime, the owners realized they now had the time for much-needed renovations without changing the pub’s character. They replaced every wall, ceiling, and floor surface, tearing out carpet that had absorbed decades of indoor cigarette smoke. Then, as planned, they bought back all memorabilia the state had seized. With everything in its right place, Sir Ed’s reopened a few months after closing and resumed its place in the Charlotte food scene.
In the near-decade since, while Park Road has exploded with growth, Sir Ed’s has retained its legacy of good food and homey character. Some changes, like the closing of Regal Park Terrace, have been sad to see, Deal admits. But the flurry of new bars nearby (Dot Dot Dot, Midwood Smokehouse) has been great for business. “We always said the best thing about Sir Ed’s was that there’s no foot traffic. And the worst thing about Sir Ed’s–no foot traffic.” There’s certainly no shortage of traffic now. What does the future hold for the shopping center? Deal casually speculated that “eventually they’re gonna have to tear it down and put some more density in here.”
Today Deal lives in the mountains where he runs his law practice but regularly returns to keep an eye on things. Jeff Roberts still manages the bar, working alongside his wife. For a long time the Aguilars, a Honduran-American family, have made up most of the kitchen staff, with Yojani Aguilar replacing McAfee as the head chef for several years until she herself recently retired.
Deal’s only real headache now, it appears, is how attached his regulars are to items on the menu. Even slight seasonal changes are met with “armed resistance,” he said. “Sometimes I’d like to just come down off the mountain, smash it all, and write a whole new menu.” There’s a hint of nostalgia for the old freewheeling days in Deal’s idol-smashing prophet fantasy. But despite all our talk of ownership, it’s clear that Sir Ed’s has become what Deal first envisioned: a neighborhood pub. He’s got to keep the neighbors happy.