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Wednesday, 08 June 2011 19:44

Canton’s Imperial grill set for July opening

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A merger is afoot in Canton that will bring together two staples of the town’s downtown scene.

Soon, the Canton Lunch Box, a fixture of the town’s business community, will join forces with the Imperial Hotel, an equally prominent fixture in Canton’s history and heritage, with the opening of the Imperial Grill and Tavern.

The new venue is the brainchild of Mayor Pat Smathers, who owns the historic structure, and Greg Petty, the man behind the Lunch Box. It will bring to downtown Canton something it hasn’t seen since the heyday of the hotel itself, said Petty.

While the Lunch Box, a popular lunch spot for downtown workers and employees of the nearby paper mill, has now officially shut its doors to the public, the place will be reincarnated in July when the Imperial opens for business.

The idea, said Petty, is to offer the town not only a restaurant and bar — and eventually a few hotel rooms, which is Smathers’ side of the business — but also an event venue housed in the old hotel’s grand ballroom. It will be able to accommodate up to 125 people, and Petty’s hoping it will soon become a popular spot for wedding receptions and business meetings. The first phase of the project, the bar and restaurant, are slated for completion around July 10, while phase two, the event venue, will hopefully follow soon after.

But the historic renovation hasn’t been without its hurdles. The initial target date was sometime around Mothers’ Day, but May came and went sans opening, the project hamstrung by the difficulties inherent in tackling such an old and storied structure.

But that, said Petty, is part of its charm.

“The historical aspect of the building really intrigued me. That atmosphere and that venue is what really attracted us,” said Petty.

And the structure is, indeed, full of history.

Built in the late 19th century, it was originally a residence. Following a transformation into a hotel, it remained a lodging house into the 1930s. Later, storefront façades were erected, covering the ornate face of the building. In what will now be the outdoor dining courtyard, the intricate tile pattern that once lined the floor of a menswear store housed there can still be seen.

Gary Cochran, the contractor overseeing the Imperial’s restoration, said they’ve even found photos advertising the hotel as the best $2 rooms around.

Partially, it’s that historic character that makes the project slow going at times.

“We’re trying to put things back as original as we can,” said Cochran, though that’s sometimes hard, given all the incarnations the building has gone through in the intervening century since its construction.

And, said Cochran, the tiles aren’t the only remnants they’ve found of the building’s many past lives. During Prohibition, the place served as a local speakeasy. Cochran and his crew found the trap doors and old bottles used in the clandestine operation. Some of the contractors have even reported hearing voices and spying moving curtains in empty rooms.

The restoration of the storied structure was funded in part by a matching grant from the N.C. Rural Center, who kicked in 50 percent of the money. The other half was raised by Smathers, the building’s owner, along with Petty, its new tenant.

In its newest role, Petty hopes the Imperial will again serve as a gathering place for the county’s eastern end, the kind of place locals have long had to travel to Waynesville or Asheville to find.

And although his cuisine is likely going to step up a notch from down-home lunch fare to American dinner staples such as ribs, steak and chops, Petty said he’s not worried about losing his loyal lunchers.

“You’re still going to be able to get a chicken salad sandwich, you’re still going to be able to get a tuna melt. We’re going to have a lot more parking for people to come to, we’re going to have the outdoor dining, we’re going to be able to do a lot more with that building than we can’t do with the Lunch Box,” said Petty. “We’re not going to run away any of our guests; we’re not going to change.”

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