It’s easy to spot regulars at Fenwick’s, the bistro on Providence Road for 39 years. They might glance at the chalkboard by the door, which lists the daily specials on the left and the wine specials on the right. But they rarely bother to open the menu. They already know it by heart.
Most stick with their usual: Maybe the Chicken Salad, stuffed into a croissant or scooped on a generous plate of chopped vegetables and crisp croutons. Maybe the Steak Sandwich, or Chicken Fenwick’s, a grilled chicken breast topped with Swiss cheese and mushrooms.
So many things at Fenwick’s never change. Those little green bottles of simple syrup so you can make your iced tea as sweet as you want it. The hanging baskets and planters of herbs that line the front porch. The mirrored back wall that tries to make the tiny place—it barely seats 40—look bigger than it is.
But one big thing has changed: Catherine Rabb, the chef, co-owner, and heart of Fenwick’s, is gone. She died just over a year ago, at age 64, after a private battle with cancer.
It’s still a family place, though. Not just the regulars, who’ve been coming so long they’re practically family. There’s Catherine’s real family—her husband, Don, who’s always run the front of the house. Their youngest son, Dustin, is general manager, and Catherine’s brother, Andy Brown, still runs the kitchen.
Don Rabb is 82, with that distinct accent of a New Orleans native. His blue eyes brighten if you share a story about Catherine, who split her time between Johnson & Wales University, where she taught wine and restaurant service during the day, and Fenwick’s, where she ran the kitchen at night.
Don has kept Fenwick’s open since Catherine died, but he’s not sure how long that will last. When it was time to renew the lease this year, he signed up for a year instead of their usual three. That will get Fenwick’s to 2024, the restaurant’s 40th anniversary. After that, he’s not sure.
Don and Catherine never planned to open a restaurant. Don was bumping around New Orleans in the early ’80s, working for a shipping line, bartending, and playing drums in jazz bands, when a friend came to him with the idea to open a restaurant in Charlotte.
Don opened Shenanigan’s on Independence Boulevard. It was a swinging place in the fern-bar style of the era, back when blackened redfish was everywhere and Sunday brunch wasn’t Sunday brunch without Cajun food and brassy jazz. He was behind the bar when a blonde server, barely 5-foot-2, put in a cocktail order. He remembers asking, “Do you know what you’re doing?”
They fell in love and got married, and when a restaurant on Providence Road closed, they saw an opportunity. It had been a diner called Steak & Eggs, then a sandwich shop. The previous owners named Fenwick’s after a place in Virginia Beach called Fantastic Fenwick’s. They made it only a few months, and the Rabbs leased the space.
They kept the name so they could keep the sign because they didn’t have the money to change it. Don remembers thinking, Thank God Catherine can cook. They also brought on “Big Dave” Williams, their cook from Shenanigan’s. Big Dave and Catherine took over the kitchen, and he stayed until he died in 2015.
They never advertised. They just relied on word of mouth. People in the neighborhood loved this place they could walk to for a reliable lunch or dinner. But one customer razzed Catherine about Fenwick’s wine selection, mostly a predictable list of California bottles. So she went to Harris Teeter, bought the most expensive bottle they had, and took it home to start teaching herself about wine.
She got serious about wine and service and took a day job teaching at Central Piedmont Community College. When Johnson & Wales opened its Charlotte campus in 2004, she became a chef-instructor and earned certifications as a sommelier and wine educator. She also wrote a wine column for The Charlotte Observer from 2005 to 2016—and that list of wines on the chalkboard at Fenwick’s got a lot more interesting.
Even a small restaurant like Fenwick’s takes a lot of work to run. Catherine used to joke about her “glamorous” life of drinking wine during the day and scrubbing grease traps at night.
Since her death, Fenwick’s has stayed the same—almost. They dropped the Chicken Broccoli Casserole and Chocolate Kahlua Pie to simplify things (although the pie showed up at Thanksgiving, when they sell whole pies). Along one wall, Don has framed a series of placemats that a customer used to draw cartoons. Otherwise, for at least one more year, it will stay Fenwick’s.
“It’s far from glossy, it’s far from modern, it’s far from perfect. But that’s OK,” Catherine said in an interview for this magazine in 2017. “There’s space in the fabric of society for us, too.”
KATHLEEN PURVIS is a longtime Charlotte writer who covers Southern food and culture.