LEWIS CAFE - 807 WEST MAIN

/sites/default/files/images/2008_4/LewisCafe_construction.jpg/sites/default/files/images/2008_4/LewisCafe_close.jpg/sites/default/files/images/2008_4/LewisCafe_fromNewCig_1948.jpgDrawing of Lewis Cafe-edit.jpeg/sites/default/files/images/2008_4/LewisCafe_1980.jpg

LEWIS CAFE - 807 WEST MAIN

807
,
Durham
NC
Built in
1939
/ Modified in
late 1940s
/ Demolished in
early 1980s
Construction type: 
Neighborhood: 
Type: 
Use: 
,

Comments

  • Submitted by Eric on Thursday, April 3, 2008 - 3:14am

    Any photos/memories of Parkers'?

    I only got to go a few times before it closed, but it looms legendarily in my memories of Durham.

  • Submitted by Lamond on Thursday, April 3, 2008 - 1:31pm

    This is fascinating. I love the sign in Lewis' Cafe's front window reading "North Carolina's No. 1 Need... Good Health!" In the third photo from the bottom, the steeple on Main St. Christian Church is gone, and there are new dormers... or is that a different building from the sanctuary?

  • Submitted by Gary on Thursday, April 3, 2008 - 2:18pm

    Eric

    Don't know Parkers - where was it?

    Lamond

    The original sanctuary of the MSMC had been torn down - you can just see the cars parked on the far side of the still extant building. I'm not sure if the pictured building was a new sanctuary or what its purpose was - it appears to have been built during the 1950s.

    GK

  • Submitted by John Schelp on Thursday, April 3, 2008 - 2:24pm

    Thanks, Gary. And thank you, Sherry Handfinger. Today's entry is a treasure that your great-grandchildren will enjoy...

  • Submitted by Lamond on Thursday, April 3, 2008 - 2:28pm

    Thanks for the quick clarification, Gary. I discovered a photo of the sanctuary with the addition here:

    http://www.pilgrimucc-durham.org/Portals/220/History/Main-street-church.jpg

    (source: Pilgrim United Church of Christ "Firsts" page: http://www.pilgrimucc-durham.org/Default.aspx?tabid=5192))

  • Submitted by RWE on Thursday, April 3, 2008 - 2:38pm

    This is yet another one-sided retail street (like Ninth Street) that is ripe for infill development. This site remains comprised of several small parcels - at least one of which is not owned by Brightleaf Square. (It's the one that the ticket booth sits on).

    Unfortunately, I think we're still a long way from the point where the value of infill development on this site outweighs the value of the parking spaces plus the costs of cleaning up likely contamination from drycleaning fluid and underground fuel tanks.

    The 1948 photo from the Chesterfield Building gives a nice contextual view of the apartments that stood at Watts and Main, and illustrates an appropriately scaled transition between Brightleaf and the single family residences on Watts. I think you profiled this structure during the analysis of the Chancellory project. Can you please give us a link back to that?

    Thanks.

  • Submitted by Gary on Thursday, April 3, 2008 - 3:01pm

    Lamond - Thanks for that link; I haven't seen that picture before. I'll need to contact them to see if I can get a bigger version.

    Rob - agreed that a variety of current conditions mitigate against the possibility of something happening on this spot. I find the status quo on the Gregson corridor a bit tiresome - Medical Arts, Urban Merchant, and, yes, the size of these parking lots at what should be the core of the activity center (the intersection of Gregson and Main.) Even two small structures on the NE and SE corners would make a world of difference.

    Those were the Beverly, or Watts, apartments. I have several pictures of them in context - I used one of these at some point, and I'm not sure exactly where I put it now. Here's the main Chancellory post, which includes a picture of the apts.

    http://endangereddurham.blogspot.com/2007/01/wattsmcpherson-hospitals-ch...

    GK

  • Submitted by Gary on Thursday, April 3, 2008 - 3:11pm

    Oh - and the site might be a good candidate for the NC Brownfields program to help make development more feasible from an environmental standpoint.

    GK

  • Submitted by John Martin on Thursday, April 3, 2008 - 7:31pm

    Parkers was on East Main St. just east of the railroad tracks and Golden Belt, and just west of Carpenter Chevrolet. The building is still there, and still being used as a diner, but I can't remember the name now.

    Parkers attracted a wide variety of customers from doctors and Dukies to mill workers and cops. It had great NC-style barbeque, southern fried chicken, and hush puppies.

    An acquaintance of mine, wanting to show Yankee visitors the range of Southern cusine, would take people to Parkers the first night and Magnolia Grill the second night. Parkers survived at least into the 1980's, but I'm not sure when it changed hands.

    I miss it. Great cheap eats.

  • Submitted by John Martin on Thursday, April 3, 2008 - 7:35pm

    Well, I got that reversed. Parkers was WEST of Golden Belt and EAST of Carpenter Chevrolet.

  • Submitted by Anonymous on Thursday, April 3, 2008 - 8:11pm

    How incredibly sad. I've been wondering all this time why Durham doesnt have a real breakfast joint...this was it. :(

  • Submitted by Joseph H. on Friday, April 4, 2008 - 3:31am

    Gary: Parker's was on East Main Street on the other side of Downtown. I believe the building is now occupied (or was until recently) by "JC's Kitchen -- Where the food is anointed and you won't be disappointed."

  • Submitted by Anonymous on Friday, April 4, 2008 - 1:04pm

    I think the ex-Parker's place is local bluesman John Dee Coleman's place now (and has been for awhile)...

  • Submitted by Anonymous on Friday, April 4, 2008 - 1:42pm

    JC's is still there as of a week ago...

    http://carpedurham.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/jcs/

  • Submitted by Stacie on Friday, June 5, 2009 - 5:31pm

    Wallace Pickett is my granddad (now deceased). I'd appreciate any other pictures that might be floating around! :)
    Thanks!

  • Submitted by Sherry Handfinger on Tuesday, August 6, 2013 - 6:21pm

    This reply is a bit late; thanks for all the sentimental comments about my grandfather's café (Lewis' Café). To answer the comment to Anonymous dated 4/3/08 - 8:11pm -- yes, we lost one of the first and best breakfast joints in Durham. My grandfather served ham, bacon & side meat with biscuits long before Hardee's et al. even thought about selling them.

  • Submitted by W Chapman on Monday, December 9, 2013 - 2:48pm

    Sherry:

    Thanks for your contributions. Wondering if you have the original of the Tops menu? Would you ever think about selling it?

    Regards.
    Warren Chapman

Add new comment

In tours

  • This building does not appear in any tours yet.

Last updated

  • Sun, 08/21/2011 - 8:56pm by gary

Location

35° 59' 58.1208" N, 78° 54' 31.788" W

Comments

807
,
Durham
NC
Built in
1939
/ Modified in
late 1940s
/ Demolished in
early 1980s
Construction type: 
Neighborhood: 
Type: 
Use: 
,

 

Lewis Cafe, under construction. Main St. Christian Church is in the background, late 1940s.
(Courtesy Sherry Handfinger)

The original Lewis Cafe was built by Lewis Utley in 1939 as a "boxcar restaurant" that served a primarily breakfast and lunchtime crowd from the Liggett Plant and surrounding businesses. It appears to have been expanded in the late 1940s with this masonry structure.


A closer view of the restaurant under construction.
(Courtesy Sherry Handfinger)

I'm going to reproduce a newspaper article from the Durham Sun, published on August 27th, 1981 just before the restaurant closed, to describe the restaurant and its clientele. The article was written by Joe McQuay.

"Bacon sizzles on the constantly used-but-still-clean griddle. Eggs are scrambled by a man with 50 years experience, and other workers whisk around the kitchen amid aromas of freshly baked biscuit and simmering coffee.

It's business as usual at the Lewis Restaurant. But the restaurant which has been a breakfast institution in Durham for 42 years will serve its last meal [in two days.]

The restaurant is located at 807 West Main St., a block from Brightleaf Square, a former Liggett & Myers tobacco warehouse being converted to a shopping center.

'We have purchased that piece of property for Brightleaf and will begin renovating sometime in September' said Terry Sanford, Jr., president of SEHED investment corporation, principal investors in the Brightleaf project.

Sanford said the restaurant was bought months ago, and [Wallace] Pickett [owner] told him he planed to retire in December anyway.

'We will remove the building and make that into parking.' Sanford said.

'I have no real regrets about the restaurant closing' said Lewis Utley, former owner of the business and now a part-time cook. 'Everything's got to stop sometime.'

Utley entered the business [in 1930], operating diners in the Edgemont community and on Parrish Street. He opened a boxcar diner at the present site on main Street.

'It had five stools and three booth' he said. 'But I built this building [in] about [1939] when Camp Butner started busting out.'"


The side of the Lewis Cafe, seen from the under-construction New Cigarette Factory, 1948. (Courtesy The Herald-Sun Newspaper)

"The restaurant now has a capacity of 56 people.

Utley ran the business for 27 years, selling out to Wallace Pickett in 1967.

When Pickett took over, he purposely made no major changes, keeping the former owner's name.

'He had been here for so long, and I didn't want to change that' Pickett said. 'Speed is the key to the success of this restaurant' said Pickett, who quickly claimed, 'not many times will people come in that they have to wait more than five minutes to eat.'

A customer walked in to sit at the counter, and was immediately greeted with a cup of coffee. Less than three minutes later he was taking his first bite of a scrambled-egg and sausage sandwich - all without saying a word.

'We have quite a few people who come in for breakfast on a regular basis,' Pickett said. 'Our clientele is the general public, anybody from a construction worker to lawyers and office workers.'

'I hate to see this place close down,' said Willie McMillan, worker for a Durham rest home and a Lewis regular for 11 years. 'People are crying about losing that lighthouse on the coast, but we'll be crying about losing this restaurant.'"

Drawing of Lewis Cafe-edit.jpeg
Drawing of Lewis Utley and the Lewis Cafe
(Courtesy Sherry Handfinger)

"'This is the only place in town you can get side meat,' said John Price, a painter and customer for 10 years. 'It is nice, clean quite place to enjoy breakfast.'

The menu contain several items not included in average breakfast fare: eggs and liver pudding, side meat, and homemade sausage.

'We make our own sausage and have been stuffing sausage into links during the winter,' Pickett said. 'Of course, we won't have to do that this year.'

'They just have a whole lot better food,' said James Carden, a painter and customer of about 10 years. 'I've been trying to get them to open another one, but I haven't had any luck.'

The restaurant opens at 5 am and Pickett said 'there are usually two or three people outside waiting to eat.'

To get the place ready to open, Pickett said he gets up ever morning at 3:45. He said the early hours never bothered him, having grown up on a farm, served in World War II on an anti-aircraft carrier and carried a morning paper route.

'It's going to be a hard habit to break, getting up that early,' he said.

The restaurant used to have a brisk midday business, Pickett said, when adjacent Liggett & Myers tobacco plants gave workers 45 minutes to an hour for lunch.

'People used to stand up and wait for a place to sit. But they went to 30-minute lunch breaks and that cut our lunch crowd.'

Liggett's layoff of nearly 400 employees [in 1979] also hurt business, but Pickett said he was able gradually to built it back up.

'The customers have changed over the past 10-15 years,' said Utley, who joined the conversation during lull at the grill. 'There are so many hamburger joints opening up which serve breakfast and that took all the young folks away.'

Another order came in and Utley quickly returned to the grill.

'You know both of those men (Utley and Pickett) are the finest you'll ever meet,' said Morgan Riley, president of a Durham paint and wallpaper company.

Riley said that he had been eating there for more than 15 years because, 'it's nice to have home-cooked food by people who care about how they prepare it.'

'It would be great if they could pick up this restaurant and move it someplace. There's no other place to go where you can find this atmosphere,' Riley said, his eyes scanning the restaurant like it was his last look.

Pickett, 63, said he plans to retire after the business closes.

'I'm going to enjoy life, play some golf and maybe do a little traveling with my wife,' he said. 'I hope to spend more time with my three sons and three granddaughters.'

When asked what his plans were after Saturday, Utley said, 'I don't rightly know. I'm 75 years old and I guess it's time to retire.'


Lewis Cafe, circa 1980
(Courtesy Sherry Handfinger)


Lewis Cafe, 1981
(Courtesy Robby Delius)


Looking southwest from the north side of West Main St., 1981. Lewis' Cafe is at the left edge of the frame, and a portion of the Main St. Christian Church is just beyond it.
(Courtesy Robby Delius)


Looking west-northwest at the site of the Lewis Cafe, ~1984.
(Courtesy Durham County Library / North Carolina Collection)

And parking this has remained since the end of August, 1981. For many years, until the late 1990s, this was an open parking lot like the one across the street. But when Peabody Place opened up, and Fowler's defected from Brightleaf, Sanford and the Brightleaf folks got in a snit about parking and gated the lot.

In case you can't tell, I'm not a fan of the surface parking around here - there's too much. Yes, you might need to look for a spot for more than a minute or two on a Friday night - but I haven't felt the need to park in this gated lot for about 7 or 8 years. There's always street parking somewhere.

But retailers are wont to blame a lack of parking for lackluster business, and developers/business owners want to keep space leased - so copious parking it is.


Looking south at the site of the Lewis Cafe, 12.17.07.

I hope, eventually, we get some infill development on the street-side portion of this lot or the lot across the street and fill in the streetscape with places like the cafe. For all the business around Brightleaf, it still feels empty to me on West Main Street.

Many thanks to Sherry Handfinger for sharing her information and photos about her grandfather, Lewis Utley, and his restaurant. Sherry also notes that her grandmother, (Ruth Alford Utley), worked alongside her grandfather as the cashier "all those years." "Everyone called them Ma Ruth and Pa Lou. Every Friday after Thanksgiving Day, our family watched the Durham Christmas Parade from the cafe rooftop or inside if it was too cold."

35.999478 -78.90883

Comments

Any photos/memories of Parkers'?

I only got to go a few times before it closed, but it looms legendarily in my memories of Durham.

This is fascinating. I love the sign in Lewis' Cafe's front window reading "North Carolina's No. 1 Need... Good Health!" In the third photo from the bottom, the steeple on Main St. Christian Church is gone, and there are new dormers... or is that a different building from the sanctuary?

Eric

Don't know Parkers - where was it?

Lamond

The original sanctuary of the MSMC had been torn down - you can just see the cars parked on the far side of the still extant building. I'm not sure if the pictured building was a new sanctuary or what its purpose was - it appears to have been built during the 1950s.

GK

Thanks, Gary. And thank you, Sherry Handfinger. Today's entry is a treasure that your great-grandchildren will enjoy...

Thanks for the quick clarification, Gary. I discovered a photo of the sanctuary with the addition here:

http://www.pilgrimucc-durham.org/Portals/220/History/Main-street-church.jpg

(source: Pilgrim United Church of Christ "Firsts" page: http://www.pilgrimucc-durham.org/Default.aspx?tabid=5192))

This is yet another one-sided retail street (like Ninth Street) that is ripe for infill development. This site remains comprised of several small parcels - at least one of which is not owned by Brightleaf Square. (It's the one that the ticket booth sits on).

Unfortunately, I think we're still a long way from the point where the value of infill development on this site outweighs the value of the parking spaces plus the costs of cleaning up likely contamination from drycleaning fluid and underground fuel tanks.

The 1948 photo from the Chesterfield Building gives a nice contextual view of the apartments that stood at Watts and Main, and illustrates an appropriately scaled transition between Brightleaf and the single family residences on Watts. I think you profiled this structure during the analysis of the Chancellory project. Can you please give us a link back to that?

Thanks.

Lamond - Thanks for that link; I haven't seen that picture before. I'll need to contact them to see if I can get a bigger version.

Rob - agreed that a variety of current conditions mitigate against the possibility of something happening on this spot. I find the status quo on the Gregson corridor a bit tiresome - Medical Arts, Urban Merchant, and, yes, the size of these parking lots at what should be the core of the activity center (the intersection of Gregson and Main.) Even two small structures on the NE and SE corners would make a world of difference.

Those were the Beverly, or Watts, apartments. I have several pictures of them in context - I used one of these at some point, and I'm not sure exactly where I put it now. Here's the main Chancellory post, which includes a picture of the apts.

http://endangereddurham.blogspot.com/2007/01/wattsmcpherson-hospitals-ch...

GK

Oh - and the site might be a good candidate for the NC Brownfields program to help make development more feasible from an environmental standpoint.

GK

Parkers was on East Main St. just east of the railroad tracks and Golden Belt, and just west of Carpenter Chevrolet. The building is still there, and still being used as a diner, but I can't remember the name now.

Parkers attracted a wide variety of customers from doctors and Dukies to mill workers and cops. It had great NC-style barbeque, southern fried chicken, and hush puppies.

An acquaintance of mine, wanting to show Yankee visitors the range of Southern cusine, would take people to Parkers the first night and Magnolia Grill the second night. Parkers survived at least into the 1980's, but I'm not sure when it changed hands.

I miss it. Great cheap eats.

Well, I got that reversed. Parkers was WEST of Golden Belt and EAST of Carpenter Chevrolet.

How incredibly sad. I've been wondering all this time why Durham doesnt have a real breakfast joint...this was it. :(

Gary: Parker's was on East Main Street on the other side of Downtown. I believe the building is now occupied (or was until recently) by "JC's Kitchen -- Where the food is anointed and you won't be disappointed."

I think the ex-Parker's place is local bluesman John Dee Coleman's place now (and has been for awhile)...

JC's is still there as of a week ago...

http://carpedurham.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/jcs/

Wallace Pickett is my granddad (now deceased). I'd appreciate any other pictures that might be floating around! :)
Thanks!

This reply is a bit late; thanks for all the sentimental comments about my grandfather's café (Lewis' Café). To answer the comment to Anonymous dated 4/3/08 - 8:11pm -- yes, we lost one of the first and best breakfast joints in Durham. My grandfather served ham, bacon & side meat with biscuits long before Hardee's et al. even thought about selling them.

Sherry:

Thanks for your contributions. Wondering if you have the original of the Tops menu? Would you ever think about selling it?

Regards.
Warren Chapman

Add new comment