On Tuesday, Gray Brooks met with his staff at Jack Tar & the Colonel’s Daughter to deliver sad news: After five years, the Durham restaurant was closing, a delayed casualty of the pandemic and the empty downtown it has left behind.
Midway through the meeting, the sprinklers turned on, drowning out the details and matching the mood of the staff. (Brooks says that he was told the sprinklers were accidentally triggered when a guest at the Unscripted Hotel, on a floor above Jack Tar, got trapped in a bathroom and attempted to escape.)
The incident left an inch of water in some parts of the restaurant, but Brooks has scrambled to make repairs so that staff can squeeze in as many shifts as they can before it closes. The restaurant will be open for dinner from Wednesday, March 8 through Saturday, March 11. It will also be open for brunch on Saturday, March 11, and Sunday, March 12.
“I’ll miss this restaurant a lot and I’ll really miss our people,” Brooks says. “If you have favorite places, go eat at them.”
Brooks, who also owns downtown staples Littler and Pizzeria Toro, opened Jack Tar and its sidebar sister, the Colonel’s Daughter, in late 2017. Situated at the corner of Corcoran and East Main Street on the ground floor beneath Unscripted Hotel—formerly the Jack Tar Motor Lodge, to which the restaurant name pays homage—the restaurant became known for its sleek diner menu and atmosphere.
Business at Littler and Pizzeria Toro, Brooks says, is still doing well. Littler is a smaller operation and a reliable destination for intimate, upscale dinners, while Toro hums on weekends and has proven more suitable for takeout. (Brooks estimates that its business from takeout has jumped from five percent to 30 percent since the pandemic.)
“Fortunately, things are very good,” he says, knocking on the wooden bar, “but it’s a very different game at those places.”
At Jack Tar, oversized pancakes, a Julia Child omelet, and Bloody Marys have all been popular menu options. And while many downtown restaurants only serve dinner, prior to COVID-19, Jack Tar’s all-day hours attracted a bustling office crowd.
“The heart and soul of this restaurant was breakfast and lunch,” Brooks says from the bar at the Colonel’s Daughter, where he’s sat down to talk for a few minutes. “We opened at eight o’clock in the morning and were open the whole day through.”
Brooks says he feels that restaurant life is shifting, describing downtown as a “hole in the middle of a donut,” with density built up around it but not enough focus on maintaining foot traffic or accommodating affordable housing for restaurant industry workers.
“Post-COVID—well, you can go outside and look around,” he continues. “It’s a ghost town compared to what it once was. The offices aren’t occupied for the most part, the various conferences aren’t happening anymore—used to be, we could get two to three conferences a month here. Half the time we were full, it was people with lanyards around their necks. The film festival is canceled this year. It just never rematerialized.”
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