The building on the edge of the Holiday Marina at Lake Norman that used to house the dive bar known as Rusty Rudder – and please don’t argue with me; yes, it was a dive bar – has finally reopened as a ... well, basically, the place is now the antithesis of a dive bar.
It’s called Hello, Sailor, it’s brought to you by the husband-and-wife team that already owns one of the the toughest-to-get-a-table-at restaurants in the area (Kindred in Davidson), and it’s about to give Charlotteans who might not otherwise be able to locate the little town of Cornelius on a map a good reason to take a culinary field trip up Interstate 77.
Officially open for business starting at 5 p.m. Sunday following months of construction delays, Joe and Katy Kindred’s seafood-centric spot marks a sunny, splashy, sophisticated overhaul of the ol’ Rudder, which closed in October 2016 after 15 years of providing great lake views and unmemorable pub fare.
On Friday night, though, Hello, Sailor quietly threw open its doors for a private media event, during which it offered unlimited run of its indoor dining space (the patio won’t be ready until later in the month) and a limited preview of its menu.
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Now, it’s not possible to write a proper review of the restaurant based on this initial visit, since food-wise guests were only able to sample a handful of dishes in hors d’oeuvre-sized portions, since the staff knew everything was being evaluated, and since all the bills were being comped. But after months of waiting and wondering, I can finally give you at least a rough idea of what a trip to Hello, Sailor will be like.
Here’s the deal:
▪ Parking could be a headache. When you roll down Henderson Road, you’ll find exactly what you found back when it was the Rudder: a parking lot that, on a hot summer day at the lake, will fill up faster than you can say Hello, Sailor – or Hello, Dolly, or Hello Kitty, or even just “Hello,” for that matter. There’s no way around this: You’ll be lucky to find a spot at prime time in the warmer months, since both the restaurant and the marina will be bustling. Co-owner Katy Kindred says they’re “trying to come up with ways that we can best handle that situation,” but offers this as a possible solution for anyone hoping to avoid frustration: “Uber.”
▪ It makes a great first impression. The front facade is striking, at least at night. (Until later this month, you’ll almost certainly only see it in the dark, since initially Hello, Sailor will be open for dinner only.) Kindred uses words like “punchy” and “desert chic” to describe the design, which she oversaw, and out front this means a baby palm tree, cactus plants, creamy-white breeze block and the restaurant’s logo emblazoned in colors that evoke the sunset. If it feels to West Coasters a bit like Palm Springs, then Kindred would be pleased, since she and her husband took a trip to the SoCal resort city to soak up inspiration. The outward vibe carries over into the welcome area, with its oversized live plants and sunset-colored sofa to the left, and a “Hello, Merch” stand offering trucker hats, T-shirts, sunglasses and koozies to the right. This area is likely to be a zoo in the early going: Hello, Sailor does not take reservations, so expect to run into a line.
▪ They keep it simple, stupid. The dining room is straightforward yet tasteful, with natural rattan chairs, terrazzo and slate flooring, a wood-paneled ceiling and sporadic but dramatic stonework around the interior. Like Kindred, Hello, Sailor eschews booths in favor of small-ish tables mostly built for two to four (although they’re not bolted down, so presumably they can be pushed together to accommodate larger groups). I’m a little afraid that – also like Kindred – it might have the tendency to get a bit loud when full, but I’ll have to make a return visit on a busy night to find out. The horseshoe bar is surrounded by more than a dozen wide woven stools, and the TV in the back apparently will mostly run programming with a surfing theme.
▪ Two nice touches right in the middle of the action: A sitting area between the bar and the dining room that features four leather butterfly chairs positioned around a ceramic fireplace, and a fun/funky vintage photo booth that spits out a strip of four photos (in both color and black and white) for $5.
▪ Oh, and we should probably talk about the food, right? In short, the more you like seafood, the more you’re going to like the menu. Whereas the design was inspired by Palm Springs, the food was inspired to some degree by Seattle, where the Kindreds were feasting on fish right before they found out the Rusty Rudder space was coming onto the market. Appetizers include Oysters Rockefeller ($10.49) and Middleneck Clams ($14.49); plates and platters include Salt & Pepper NC Catfish ($12.99) and Carolina Shrimp Calabash ($14.99); and there are raw selections like Old Salt Oysters ($14.99) and Hamachi ($10.99). If you prefer land over sea, you’ll also find Baby Back Pork Ribs ($17.99) and The Italian ($10.99), a sandwich with salami, provolone and pepperoncini. Less-pricey options include a Grilled Caesar salad for $8.99, a Fried Bologna Sandwich for $8.49, and – here’s the only place where I’ll editorialize about the grub – an order of some of the best hush puppies I have ever tasted for $3.49. The menu (created by chef de cuisine Craig Deihl and executive chef Joe Kindred) is largely locally sourced and likely to change regularly. Only suggestion: Perhaps a couple of more-creative options for vegetarians/vegans...
▪ How about the drinks? Cocktails range from $8 for a Midori Sour to $16 for the Backseat Bingo, a blend of white rum, banana liqueur, coconut and macadamia nut that serves two. On the list I saw (which wasn’t quite final), there were five beers on tap, several more in cans and bottles, and 14 wines (the cheapest being a Cava Reserva and a Pinot Grigio at $9 each). Two beers of note: Free Range’s Barracuda Bill’s Pseudo Pils comes in a 32-ounce can that’s apparently exclusive to Hello, Sailor for $10, and it’s BIG. But it’s not the biggest beer you can get. That honor goes to the 40-ounce Miller High Life bottle that the bartender will pull out of the cooler upon request. He’ll charge you $9 for it.
▪ A few other odds and ends: The inside of the building can accommodate about 90 people if you include the bar area; the deck out back offers an additional 3,500 square feet, with seating for 50 on the heated patio that will stay open pretty much year-round and another 65 to 75 seats on the seasonal deck, which will only be open during the warmer months. ... As mentioned: Initially, Hello, Sailor will be open for dinner only, from 5 p.m. “till close” – the Kindreds will determine closing times based on business. Once the staff finds a rhythm and the kitchen gets clicking, they’ll be open from 11 a.m. “till close” Tuesday through Sunday (Monday opening time will remain 5 p.m. every week). The menu will be the same at both lunchtime and dinnertime. ... Remember: Hello, Sailor does not take reservations.
▪ Oh, if you’re wondering about that name: Katy Kindred selected it after she went down a “rabbit hole” in search of one and randomly stumbled upon a bunch of Sailor Jerry-esque tattoos that led her to the campy catchphrase. “It really invoked that playful, kind of tongue-in-cheek, ‘we’re-not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously’ kind of thing,” she says. “Clearly, if we are on the water, and we’re right there, and so we’re the first thing you see as you come up off your boat ... we thought Hello, Sailor made a lot of sense in it. It invoked that punchy spirit that we wanted to go with, and it also has this ironic silliness to it. I don’t know, it just worked for us.” (By the way, for those wondering: There are 10 boat slips, for those who want to roll up by water, once the outdoor space is open.)
▪ R.I.P., Rusty Rudder. “We wanted it to have its own voice, and we didn’t want people to walk in and it’s sort of like ‘the ghost of Christmas past’ or whatever. We wanted people to feel like, ‘OK, it is now transformed into another place.’ I think that’s important, when you take over a space that’s been occupied by not only another restaurant but an iconic restaurant,” Kindred says. “I mean, that place had been there for 15 years, so I think we had a responsibility to honor that in what we did with the building, but at the same time create something fresh and different enough that it puts that story to rest and starts a new chapter.”