Lulu’s on Main has been a staple of the Western North Carolina culinary scene for decades, consistently delivering delicious and healthy alternatives in an area with an overabundance of barbecue and fast food restaurants.
Foodies, locals, summer residents and visitors to the mountains often travel from nearby towns to downtown Sylva just to enjoy the food and casual atmosphere in the dining room or outside on the patio. With its exotic dishes and largely vegetarian and vegan menu, Lulu’s was even voted Southern Living magazine’s “favorite restaurant in the region.”
Under its new ownership, most of that remains the same. But these days the emphasis of Lulu’s is a little less about being healthy, and all about being delicious.
Devin McCardle, the new co-owner and executive chef of Lulu’s, plans to continue the same legacy that Lulu’s has upheld over the years. He and his father, Mick McCardle, bought the restaurant with the intention of keeping all of the essential elements the same, but with an added dash of their own character and talents.
“We really don’t plan on changing Lulu’s much,” said Devin McCardle. “We’re just going to do it in our own way. The restaurant already has such a good reputation because the previous owners Kim [Anthony] and Laura [McBane] did such a good job with it.”
Louise Turner originally established Lulu’s on Main in 1989. Ten years later, in September 1999, she sold the restaurant to Anthony and McBane, who had been working there for some time. After 21 years the torch is passing to the McCardles, strangely enough, again in September.
The McCardles began operating Lulu’s in earnest on Sept. 10, only a day after Devin unpacked the truck from their move to Dillsboro. While some changes have already been made to the restaurant, with more on the way, most people’s favorite dishes will still be available.
“A lot of the menu will stay the same, but I’ve added some new variety, including hand-cut steaks and more meat entrees. And we’re going to have dinner and dessert specials on a regular basis,” said Chef Devin, taking out his cell phone and displaying some of the special dishes he’s served up in recent weeks.
The entrees and desserts are plated beautifully, and extremely well photographed, looking like photos straight out of Food & Wine or Bon Appétit magazines. It’s obvious that Devin not only knows how to prepare his dishes for consumption, but also for the most attractive presentation.
“He’s into presentation, and the highest quality,” said Mick, who is the primary spokesperson and business manager for the restaurant, drawing from his many years of experience in the hospitality industry. “But he doesn’t really even consider it a job. He considers it as more of an art form.”
Chef Devin is indeed an artist, but he’s not at all the tortured, moody artist stereotype. “I love what I do,” said Devin. “I really enjoy it, and I just want our customers to enjoy themselves and have a great experience.” He believes in keeping Lulu’s prices reasonable enough that the average person can enjoy his food. “I want everyone to be able to have a good meal at Lulu’s, a meal they will remember and want to have again, for $10 or less,” said Devin.
Mick says that while his son has high standards, he doesn’t manage the restaurant or the kitchen with a heavy-handed, forceful attitude like some chefs.
“Devin doesn’t have all kinds of rules and everything,” explained Mick. “His thing is called ‘like-mindedness.’ I really like it. You know, within reason, we’re all human and we all make mistakes, but we’re on the same path and we’re likeminded.”
Mick says Devin is a kinder, gentler chef. In his career as general manager of several successful preeminent country clubs, Mick often experienced the other end of the spectrum. “I had a young chef who worked for me, very talented but who would yell at his staff, throw fits in the kitchen, totally the opposite of Devin. So one night I called him into the office and said to him, ‘This is your first and last opportunity. I want you to understand this. This is something you don’t understand: Talent is not a license to be an ahole.’ They promote it on television, but it’s not like that at all,” said Mick, if you want to get the best results.
Devin consistently gets the best results, regarding both his staff and his cooking, said Mick. “He’s just really good at it. He’s been trained very, very well. And it’s all he really ever wanted to do.”
Mick tells the story of a young, fledgling Chef Devin, a story that unfolds like a classic traditional martial arts tale that could end with him grabbing a pebble from his master’s hand.
“At one time I was the regional director of operations for a large company that managed country clubs and resorts,” began Mick, “and I was in charge of all their properties east of the Mississippi River. So I was in charge of 37 different clubs, including some in North Carolina.” Mick said he went to Bloomington Country Club in Bloomington, Ind. to improve the performance of the operation there.
“One of the first things I did was to hire a new chef, who at the time was the Executive Sous Chef at the Buckhead Diner in Atlanta,” said Mick. “Devin was a young, 14-year-old that wanted a job, went to work in the kitchen and decided he was a chef. Mike, the new chef, decided he was a dishwasher,” he laughed.
But, he explained, Devin’s goal was to cook.
“So the chef told him ‘When you’re the best dishwasher I’ve ever had, then you can do something else.’ So Devin washed dishes very diligently for six months, and then he became a prep cook,” said Mick. “He was 15 by then. He did that for quite some time, until the chef thought he was really good at it, perhaps the best prep cook he’d ever had.”
“By the time he was a senior in high school he was the Head Sous Chef for the men’s grill, which was probably the busiest place to eat at the club,” said Mick. “The reputation of the men’s grill went from ‘nobody would eat there,’ to ‘you couldn’t get in to eat there,’ it was so busy.”
When it came time for Devin to graduate, there was no doubt what he wanted to do professionally. So his father supported his choice and he enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, one of the nation’s most illustrious culinary schools, and successfully graduated to work as a chef in several well-renowned restaurants.
Looking back, Devin remembers his earliest experience in the kitchen fondly. “I’m still a really good dishwasher,” said Devin.
As for the club?
“The entire country club was just a first-class operation by then,” said Mick. He and his staff had implemented a complete turn-around in only three years.
It’s results like these that the McCardles enjoy seeing in business. “People say you have to get 110 percent from your staff. But you can’t take 110 percent from people,” said Mick. “They have to be willing to give it to you. You have to create an environment where that works, and that’s always been my goal as management.”
Regular customers of Lulu’s will notice that the staff hasn’t changed much since the transition to new owners. “It’s pretty much the exact same staff,” said Mick. “We’re fortunate to have a good mix of people. Most of the staff here are college students or post-grad, professional college students or whatever, but they like the atmosphere in Sylva. It’s nice to work with them because we’re starting with a good base,” he said.
It’s the same laid-back atmosphere that first drew Mick to Sylva while touring the area on his motorcycle six years ago. Mick rides as often as possible, and returned to Sylva to enjoy the “flavor” of the small town several times in the ensuing years.
Executive Chef and co-owner Devin McCardle, back row center, stands with his staff in the newly painted dining room. In making the transition, he chose to retain most of the experienced staff that worked at Lulu’s under the former ownership.
Executive Chef Devin McCardle delights in providing balance and nuanced flavors in the classic French style he learned at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. Above is a 10 oz. ribeye steak grilled to perfection, crisp on the outside and delightfully tender and juicy inside, topped with sherried mushrooms served with a loaded baked potato and grilled asparagus. He and Devin hope to maintain the same quality in the restaurant. “One of the things that attracts people to Lulu’s is the laidback, kicked back atmosphere,” said Mick. “But unbeknownst to the guest, I also want to have an underlying sense of urgency, for the staff to acknowledge and welcome guests immediately and anticipate the needs of the customer.”
It’s a hard thing to pull off, he admits, to maintain the casual atmosphere the restaurant is known for, coupled with the “same desire to give excellent service” practiced in the hospitality industry. But there’s no doubt he has the right formula. “People want great service, great food, they want consistency, and they want recognition,” Mick said. “That’s what we all want when we go out to eat.”
In addition to applying their creativity to presenting food as art, the McCardles have been busy redesigning the interior of the restaurant as well. Devin’s wife, Lindsey, has applied her degree in Fine Art to the task. In recent weeks she has resurfaced most of the tables with an antique appearance, doing away with the old, unnecessary table cloths, repainted the interior of the main dining room with the help of her husband and a handful of staffers, and dressed up the interior with several innovative décor items and artwork?all while caring for the couple’s infant son, Max. For the recent Taste of Sylva, Lindsey carved five pumpkins lit with candles with the letters spelling Lulu’s.
The McCardles plan to open up the bar section of the restaurant on Dec.1. In the meantime, Lindsey is working up ideas to use the space as much for an art gallery as a bar. The bar will offer beer, wine and mixed drinks, but there won’t be any televisions or entertainment consoles, said Devin. Although it will be consistent with the restaurant’s casual atmosphere, Lulu’s will be the furthest thing from a sports bar. The restaurant is only serving beer and wine until the bar opens.
Chef Devin sees the new venture as a way to share his love of food and the finer points of dining with his customers, but he also delights in sharing his passion with his staff. He’s taken steps to pass on his education and culinary experience by training one of the promising young workers that remained from the previous regime, Erica Sharrett, and giving her the position of Sous Chef.
You can bet when she is the best sous chef he’s ever had, he’ll take her to the next level. It’s a lesson he learned early on, and a philosophy he and his father have applied to the restaurant. Master the status quo, and then take it to the next level.
Mick McCardle puts it simply.
“Our goal is to have the best food in North Carolina,” he said.
Devin takes it even further. “We want to have the best service and the best food in the region. We want Lulu’s to be a destination,” he said, sharing his father’s expectations. At this rate, it may not take long. And in the meantime, he and his family are having a lot of fun living up to them.
Lulu’s on Main is open 11:30-8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and Friday and Saturday until 9 p.m. The restaurant is located at 612 West Main Street in Sylva. For reservations or other inquiries, call (828)586-8989 or visit Lulu’s on Main on Facebook.