MOUNT HOLLY – City Café is positively cavernous. The quaint outside belies the cathedral ceilings with exposed wooden beams across the expanse of the restaurant. Lights hang on very long cords from the ceiling with soft light; just enough to chase away the dimness but leaving some shadows.
And then, just when you think it can’t get any larger, the door to the bar opens, revealing another parallel room the exact same size. The space measures just over 10,000 square feet.
The service is Southern friendly with refills and recommendations galore, making the space feel more homey. Then the food arrives and everything becomes downright cozy when presented with stacks of ribs, fried squash, sweet potato fries and the “Hollypeno” burger stacked high with cheese, bacon and jalapenos.
City Café owners Ken and Ruth Bowers got into the restaurant business in 2000 as an investment. They owned a diner in Belmont that served primarily breakfast and lunch. They found they enjoyed the restaurant business and thought downtown Mount Holly could use a place for people to eat lunch and dinner. In 2005, they bought the building, which used to house Johns Brothers grocery store and opened up City Café.
The cooks make much of the food from scratch, trying to make as many things in house as possible. They make their own bread, rolls, pimento cheese, bread, salad dressings, spaghetti sauces and marinaras.
“I’m a foodie,” said Ken Bowers. “We try not to cook items in advance, we cook to order.”
The dinner menu offers hearty fare such as chicken alfredo, beef tips, rib eye and spaghetti bake. The owners try to provide the dishes customers want with some flair. “Now we can’t get too fancy,” said Ken Bowers. “But we try to mix it up.”
The restaurant focuses on Southern fare, offering 15 side dish choices and traditional standbys like chicken fried steak. Ken Bowers tried a professionally trained chef at one point, but it did not work out.
“We really need people who know how to cook Southern!” he said with a sigh and then a smile. But it is not all smothered and covered here; the owners strive to serve the best and most fresh food to their customers.
“We will search and search and search to find the best ingredients,” Ken Bowers said. “We are absolute fanatics for quality.”
For example, the pimento burger is a popular Southern favorite. According to Ruth Bowers the homemade pimento cheese is sliced almost as thick as the burger. Then it is lightly fried until melted and placed on the hamburger made from fresh ground chuck.
Angela Berry, of Stanley, can testify to the homemade goodness of the restaurant. She came to the restaurant for the homemade chicken pot pie. She said it was flakey with layers and layers of phyllo dough.
“I’ve been here before and it was very good,” she said. “Today’s food was excellent and the staff was very, very pleasant. Oh and I would come back for the buffet.”
The buffet, which takes place on Thursdays and Sundays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. features: four meat dishes, six vegetables, a full salad bar and a full dessert bar. It costs $9.95 per person, $8.95 for seniors and $5.95 for children 12 and under. The 5-and-under set eat the buffet for free. The dessert bar is a point of pride and main selling point at City Café.
“We don’t just set out a couple pieces of cake,” Ken Bowers said. “It is an entire table full of desserts to choose from.”
The restaurant is not supposed to be ostentatious in decor or food presentation.
“We have simple food that is fresh and appealing,” Ken Bowers said.
But simple can be delicious. Ken Bowers tells of some customers who have eaten amazing meals all over the world and really appreciated the cuisine at City Café. They said it was simple, but as good as anything they had ever tasted, he shared. Waitress Lona Hudspeth has worked at the restaurant since it opened and plans on staying a good while longer.
“I just love people,” she said. “And I serve so many regulars. Plus Ken and Ruth are good people to work for.”
128 S. Main St.