Today on News Channel 11 at Noon, Fred Sauceman took us on a journey to Weaverville, North Carolina to sample the Stoney Knob Cafe during our monthly Food with Fred segment.
Below, Fred Sauceman writes about his experience at Stoney Knob Cafe. Sauceman is the author of “Buttermilk and Bible Burgers.”
We had seen the Stoney Knob Café sign on Interstate 26 in Weaverville, North Carolina, dozens of times, passing it as we traversed one of the most beautiful highways in America. But we had never stopped. Usually, our eyes were on Asheville or Greenville, South Carolina, or the beach.
Come to find out, we were bypassing one of the finest restaurants in the Southern Appalachian region. After our Facebook post from that first visit in the summer of 2016, the comments poured forth. Many friends told us it was their favorite restaurant.
We operate under the maxim that food tastes better when you know its history. Stoney Knob Café has a rich past. Now in his late 80s, Gus Dermas, the original owner, still comes to work every day alongside his two sons, John and Yotty.
Gus left his native Greece in 1947 for New York City, to work in the hotel and restaurant industry. He peddled flowers on Manhattan street corners with his father to learn English. After serving with the United States Army during the Korean Conflict, he found a home in Greensboro, North Carolina, and opened up a restaurant with his brother-in-law.
It was the era of segregation, when African Americans were being turned away from lunch counters because of the color of their skin. While the Greensboro Woolworth’s was making worldwide headlines for denying service to a group of African American students from North Carolina A&T University, Gus Dermas was welcoming African Americans to his Greensboro diner. As Gus once said, “We’re all human beings, and everyone deserves a good meal.” That story continues to be a source of Dermas family pride to this day.
When a friend told Gus about a building up for sale in Weaverville, North Carolina, he moved to the mountains. The area reminded him of the place where he was born in Greece.
“He fell in love with the mountains,” says John.
The Stoney Knob Café opened in 1962, and it has been in the same spot ever since. John describes the original restaurant as a “meat-and-three,” serving such Southern staples as liver and onions, hamburger steaks, meatloaf, and fried chicken. Gus cooked up three meals a day, with his wife Minnie as a full partner in the enterprise. She, too, was Greek, her name an Americanized version of her given name, Ismini.
“My brother and I were fortunate to have two very dedicated parents,” says John. “They were ‘hands-on’ every day.” Minnie died in September of 2015. Gus continues on, running errands to the local farmers market and maintaining the grounds around the restaurant. “He’s like a billy goat with that weedeater,” adds John.
John and Yotty bought the diner from their parents in 1992 and began adding Greek dishes—gyros, feta-laden Greek salads, spanakopita, and a lamb shank with fresh herbs, tomatoes, and spices. In the summer of 2000, they closed down for two weeks, gutted the diner, and revamped the menu. John says they kept about 60 percent of the old dishes. Their father’s beloved hamburger steak remains, but not quite as he would have originally served it. The brothers wrap it in bacon, add demi-glace and caramelized onions, and serve it alongside roasted Brussels sprouts.
Posted at the entrance of the restaurant is a sign, in Italian, promoting Pesce del Dia—the fish of the day. The evening of our visit, it was a char-grilled Florida red snapper filet with lump crab meat, South Carolina stone-ground grits, a blackened garden tomato, baby spinach, Cajun cream sauce, pickled onions, and a local radish salad. That one dish is emblematic of the eclectic approach to food that the brothers have embraced. “Cuisine from Near & Far” reads the sign out front.
That might mean Thai pork lettuce wraps, chicken pot pie, polenta and eggplant Napoleon, or a pimento cheese sandwich on sourdough bread with fried green tomatoes.
All the food is beautifully plated, and the brothers have applied that same artistic sensibility to the design and décor of the restaurant, from the plush Red Room to the Mediterranean Room, filled with Renaissance-style art, icons, and relics. The Virgin Mary Statue in the Blue Room once graced a convent in Louisiana. A canvas print of the Last Supper shares space in the restaurant with a velvet Elvis on the ceiling. “Funky urban chic” is one diner’s description.
Remarkably, this fascinating restaurant in the mountains manages to honor the classic Southern diner and the timeless Greek café while offering the ultimate in modern-day culinary creativity.
The Stoney Knob Café
337 Merrimon Avenue
Weaverville, North Carolina
The above segment was provided by Fred Sauceman, author of “Buttermilk and Bible Burgers.”