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Sadlack’s: Hillsborough’s mortal hero

October 10, 2013

Published here on April 28, 2013.

I didn’t even make it to the door of Sadlack’s Heroes before I knew I was out of place.

I’d never eaten at the tiny red restaurant before, but last week I joined a friend to investigate the more than 30-year-old Hillsborough Street icon. We parked somewhat illegally in the back — the parking lot behind Sadlack’s almost never has open spots — and walked confidently toward the door, phones in hand and dressed in preppy colors.

We couldn’t have stood out more. As we walked through the outdoor seating section toward the entrance, I felt the stares of several darkly clad regulars. These people had beards, and they looked rough. I quickened my pace, checked to make sure my friend hadn’t been hit by a stray dart, and went inside.

Immediately, I was hit with a strong feeling that this place had a soul. “So this is Sadlack’s,” I thought as I looked around at the eclectic haven for anything anti-mainstream. All the men had long hair, and the air smelled strongly of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

I found out that if I’d walked in at this time last year, I would have been met with a large banner appealing to people to go out and vote against Amendment One.

Indeed, the enterprise has an essence that cannot be captured by one label or flavor. Rather, it’s a unique amalgamation of different cultural colors and spirits that somehow fits naturally into its niche on Hillsborough Street, in North Carolina, rather than jutting out.

Our bartender stood silently staring into space when he wasn’t fixing someone’s drink. I’ve heard about the restaurant’s reputation plenty of times, but it appeared as if alcohol — not marijuana — was the only substance intoxicating the people around us. Everyone was smiling, and quickly my friend and I forgot we stood out.

We ordered a basket of sweet potato fries, and after drowning them in the accompanying apple butter, inhaled them in rapid succession. I quickly concluded that Sadlack’s will never go out of business because of its food.

The next day I returned and talked with David, one of the bartenders there. I was surprised to find that N.C. State students don’t often make their way down to the restaurant. Though the next-youngest customer had at least 15 years on me, the place felt like a college bar.

Nevertheless, David said design majors are about the only college students who come to Sadlack’s — and even those aren’t that common.

After speaking briefly with David, I got to meet the owner, a tiny, energetic woman named Rose. The first thing I wanted to find out was how she’d seen the restaurant change over the years, but according to her, it hasn’t. “Every day’s the same for me,” she said with a slight Midwestern accent.

However, what she has seen change are her customers. She guided me through the punk phase of the ‘80s, the grunge phase of the ‘90s and on to hipsters today. She said that the ‘90s were her favorite years, because no one was afraid to be different.

Everyone is the same now, she said, rolling her eyes. “All the girls especially — they’ve all got such long hair.”

When I asked her what was one thing she wanted to communicate to the N.C. State body as a whole, I thought she’d respond along the same lines as David, expressing her frustrations with the lack of student customers.

Instead, she answered with this: “Never be afraid to take a chance.”

“People live in so much fear these days,” Rose said. “Even I feel like I didn’t take enough chances.”

This is coming from a woman who bought a restaurant without even a day’s experience as a waitress. After leaving her job as a toxicology lab technician for DOW chemical, Rose  moved to Raleigh with her husband. One year of boredom later, she bought Sadlack’s.

Now, 29 years later, Rose has to leave her street corner by Dec. 31 of this year to make way for a new hotel. She doesn’t know what will happen to the restaurant — several offers in downtown Raleigh have fallen through. She’s losing hope that Sadlack’s will continue to exist after this year.

I encourage you to visit this restaurant before it leaves Hillsborough Street. It will certainly be an unforgettable experience.


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