Former Roadhouse owners to open new gourmet restaurant

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 1/20/21

PITTSBORO — After a brief absence from Pittsboro’s restaurant scene, Maria and Greg Lewis, the former owners of the Pittsboro Roadhouse, are back at it with a new fining dining experience: The …

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Former Roadhouse owners to open new gourmet restaurant

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PITTSBORO — After a brief absence from Pittsboro’s restaurant scene, Maria and Greg Lewis, the former owners of the Pittsboro Roadhouse, are back at it with a new fining dining experience: The Sycamore.

The gourmet steakhouse is nearing completion at the historic Chatham Mills and is tentatively scheduled to open in March.

“We’re really far along,” Maria said. “We’ve got the restaurant pretty much where it needs to be to open except that we have a lounge, which is a separate room, and that is close to completion.”

In addition to the restaurant and lounge area, the new space will include a catering hall for wedding venues and other events.

“Our difficulty right now is that we also have a catering business, 39 West,” Maria said, “and we’re continuing to do catering from the restaurant kitchen. But the restaurant kitchen is not big enough to do both the restaurant and the catering business. The health department won’t allow it; it’s just too small.”

To fix their capacity issue, the Lewises are renovating a second space on the Chatham Mills site which will serve as a dedicated catering kitchen.

But the catering business is slow while the pandemic drags on.

“It’s close to non-existent ...” Maria said. “We’ve been hearing from a lot of brides that are looking at the hall, but these events aren’t going to be until the fall or even spring of the following year, you know, so we’re not looking at much of anything right now.”

In contrast, Maria hopes The Sycamore will coincide easily with pandemic restrictions.

“The steakhouse is going to be limited seating anyway,” Maria said, “so I don’t think the allowable capacity will affect us because we want to keep it small.”

Yet to be determined, however, is whether enough diners will feel comfortable returning to a public space to support the fledgling restaurant.

“I think people’s, you know, attitude or feelings about going out and dining, that’s going to be the biggest challenge,” Maria said, “the comfort when it comes to dining out.”

Few restaurants have opened during the pandemic. Overwhelmingly the industry has trended in the opposite direction.

“Interestingly, we’ve been to two restaurants that opened during the pandemic,” Maria said, “and they’re not doing very well. So, I know it’s going to be a challenge.”

Unlike those restaurants, though, Maria and Greg are starting with an established clientele.

“The one thing that we have going for us that these other two restaurants do not,” Maria said, “is that we already have a following.”

A storied career

The Sycamore is the latest in what has been a decades-long career in restaurant ownership for the Lewises.

After moving to North Carolina in 2000, the couple settled in Cary where they opened a restaurant and a catering business — Catering by Design — which is still operating under different ownership.

“And then in 2007, we moved from Wake County to Chatham County because we both grew up in rural areas and preferred the environment here,” Maria said.

At first, they planned to keep their business interests in Cary.

“But when the General Store Cafe closed in 2012, which was what the Roadhouse was before we took it over, there was a lot of sadness in the community about that closing and we were sad,” Maria said. “Having that background, you know, we thought, let’s see what we can do to keep this going. And so that’s when we decided to buy it out of bankruptcy and create the Roadhouse.”

The result was an instant success — fine dining coupled with a concert hall. It was a singular experience in Pittsboro, akin to what you might find in Nashville, and the community embraced it. The 10,000 square-foot space hosted a variety of musical performances several times a week which, coupled with Greg’s signature dry-aged steaks, packed in customers from all of Chatham County and beyond.

When the pandemic began, however, the Roadhouse’s model proved untenable. The Lewises were forced to cut staff by more than 70% and operate at half capacity. They hoped to ride out the lull, but circumstances prevented them from keeping the space.

“We found out rent was going up — it was going up in August $1,000 a month, which was during the pandemic,” Maria said. “So, while we were struggling just to meet our bills as it was, our bills were then going to increase. And so, we couldn’t figure out how to meet the increase in expenses given the business climate, given the limitations. So, it couldn’t be done. And that’s when we decided to walk away.”

Even before the Roadhouse officially closed in mid-summer, though, Maria knew the couple would find a new restaurant project to fill the void.

“Actually, we started to have talks with Tom Roberts up at Chatham Mills just prior to the pandemic, I would say within days or weeks of it starting,” Maria said. “It was just an idea that we were kind of fleshing out hoping we could stay at the Roadhouse and then have a second location. But since we just couldn’t keep the Roadhouse open, that enabled us to more seriously consider an upscale steakhouse.”

And thus, The Sycamore was born.

“But there are so many people who are playing a part in bringing this production, so to speak, to the community,” Maria said. “It couldn’t be happening without all these talented people and generous people.”

Much of the restaurant’s unique aesthetic and upscale ambiance are thanks to collaborations with local talents, Maria said.

Styling guidance was contributed by Ashlie Campbell and Shana O’Leary of Chatham’s An Acquired Style, both of whom Maria knows well from their partnership on Pittsboro’s tree lighting ceremony and Summerfest.

“I had this vision for the space — I knew the feel that I wanted, the look that I wanted,” Maria said, “And Ashlie knows me so well, I was able to communicate it to her and she was able to pull in some of the details.”

Other accent pieces were put together by craftsmen such as Daniel and Randon Rickard of Silk Hope, local woodworkers, and a metal work company called DLSS, formerly based out of Pittsboro.

“Dan and his brother created our bar for us ...” Maria said, “DLSS did our copper-covered bar, our copper table tops, the bronze on the bar. They’ve done just a beautiful job.”

Two-way community support

“When the Roadhouse closed, a lot of people volunteered to help them clean up and take everything to the new place,” said Geo deSocio, a sound engineer who worked with Wes Newell and others from their Chatham-based sound and lighting group to produce the Roadhouse concerts.

“It was a community effort to help them do that, because they’ve done so much for the community.”

Amid the disappointment of having to close the Roadhouse, and the difficulty of launching a new enterprise under pandemic limitations, Maria and Greg never stopped their years-long practice of community engagement.

That’s why, according to deSocio, Chathamites are eager to see the couple succeed.

“Maria is a heck of a leader, organizer, and pusher of these ideas and concepts,” deSocio said. “And Greg has always got his feet on the ground and he’s always moving forward to implement what he can implement, along with what Maria’s overall concept of things are.”

Shortly after the pandemic began, the couple directed many of their resources to support the county’s relief efforts. For months at the height of the pandemic, they prepared and donated about 200 family meals a week through the CORA Food Pantry and Chatham County Schools. These days, they work with Communities in Schools Chatham County to distribute about 40 meals per week.

But their commitment to charitable donation began long before the pandemic.

“For five and a half years, we delivered meals to our senior citizen shut-ins around Chatham County,” Greg said.

When the pandemic started, that work stopped to prevent spreading the disease to high-risk older people.

“But there is still a link on our website where people can donate to help us continue to feed families in need,” Greg said.

For all the good Maria and Greg do for Chatham, deSocio said, he is confident that Chatham will rally to support The Sycamore.

“Everybody wants them to succeed,” he said. “Nobody’s backed away from them at all. Everyone’s there to help them whenever. And that’s because of what they’ve given to the town.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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