An homage to the American dive that doesn’t rest on its TV fame
January 18, 2023
Davis brought unmatched innovation to the city’s dining scene
by Chris Coleman, chef/partner at The Goodyear House and Old Town Kitchen & Cocktails and former McNinch House executive chef
Lighter-than-air “angel” biscuits.
Pinto beans, raw onion, and cornbread.
Rack of lamb lollipop chops.
Oversized sweater cardigans and white Keds shoes with no laces.
Pansies, petunias, johnny jumps ups, wild violets.
Crab cakes with the perfect 4:1 ratio of crab to binder.
Those salad forks — iykyk.
Fierceness: management, love, and loyalty.
These are the things I associate with Ellen Davis, pioneer, entrepreneur, Chef, and restaurateur.
Ellen kickstarted my career. Without her, my path would have been completely different. Two years out of high school, I was lucky enough to land a job as a “Chef’s assistant” at her home/restaurant, McNinch House, while I was still in culinary school at Central Piedmont Community College. I remember calling her up for an interview, and then arriving early and waiting for my interview at the restaurant to begin. I was awash in the ambiance of it all: luxurious table settings including cut crystal, hand-polished silver, china, fresh flowers, and velvety linens surrounded me, as I waited on a tufted couch in the sitting room and tried not to sweat through my chef’s coat in nervous anticipation. When Ellen entered the room, she was not at all who I expected. Petite, with sparkling eyes and an extremely charming Southern drawl, wearing her signature lace-free shoes and a pastel colored tee (I think it was peach?), my nerves completely dissipated… until I got the job and started working for the Charlotte legend.
At the time, back in 2003, McNinch operated Tuesday-Saturday, by reservation only, and only serving a seven-course menu. Guests would receive an email with entrée choices 48 hours prior to their reservation, and had one day to make their selection. The rest of the menu —amuse, appetizer, soup, salad, palate cleanser, and dessert — were all selected by Ellen. This was a true Chef’s menu, long before the current risk takers in town pushed back at the misguided idea that Charlotte couldn’t support a tasting menu format restaurant. But Ellen often did things her way, and, most of the time, did them before anyone else in the city.
Ellen fell in love with the dilapidated home at 511 N. Church St., and swept in to save it in 1978 with the vision that it could be a fine dining restaurant. She sold chicken salad, bananas, and whatever else her customers asked for from a cart on Tryon Street. When she couldn’t keep up with the demand from the cart, she approached Reid’s about selling a line of products in their store, as well as opened a Christmas shop in what would become the McNinch dining room. And then, when she was denied the loan she needed to finish the transformation of the house, she squared up with bank management, fighting sexism and opening the door for other female entrepreneurs to pursue funding.
Ellen Davis was a self-taught Chef. She would be the first to tell you that she adored Julia, practicing techniques she’d seen on television or read about in magazines. She created recipes that were extremely familiar, but with tweaks that the unknowing dining public would never be able to put their finger on (ask me about those crab cakes another time — best I’ve ever had). She planted a garden that wrapped around the restaurant, introducing me to edible flowers, heirloom tomatoes, and different varieties of mint and thyme and basil long before “farm to table” was a relevant term. She sought to create a restaurant where all the luxuries of life would be celebrated and revered, while she would usually broil a piece of fish or microwave some vegetables for her own dinner before heading upstairs to her private residence each evening.
I worked for Ellen for 10 years. During that time, she allowed me to become a Chef in my own right, mentoring me as an “assistant” that would eventually lead her kitchen. Ellen and I would often talk about the latest restaurant openings and trends, me usually pushing for change to our own menu and Ellen letting me out on a slightly longer rope as I matured. I can’t begin to count the number of times she requested a “mixed grill” entrée (how very Continental) while I, in turn, explained sous vide cooking to her. I owe a debt of gratitude to Ellen, one that I could never begin to repay. That restaurant became a second home, that staff became family, and Ellen was the matriarch that watched over all of it.
Ellen will be missed. She may be gone, but her incredible legacy will never be forgotten. If you’ve driven by a purple Victorian on Church St., standing in the shadows of skyscrapers, you have Ellen to thank (the first Thirsty Beaver, maybe?). If you’ve eaten a hot dog from a pushcart Uptown, or grabbed a seat at Counter- or Bardo, you have Ellen to thank. And if you’ve blessed me by joining us at Goodyear House or Old Town, you have Ellen to thank.
Ellen is restaurant people, and restaurant people are “crazy,” and I’m thankful to have been in that crazy person’s life.
Ellen, I love you.