Only a few minutes had ticked by since midday, and already the line at Courtside Café stretched out the door, a sheriff’s deputy holding it open with one hand as another uniformed department employee with a shaved head joined him in the queue.
“Holy mackerel, it’s busy, isn’t it?” one customer said to another.
Patrons occupied nearly every table at the downtown Winston-Salem restaurant — a group of vested construction workers in the middle of the café by the register, a cluster of strangers wearing “jury” tags making small talk in a corner. The line moved quickly — a school cafeteria-style setup made ordering faster than a Chipotle. But slower options including sandwich, burger and even pitas including chicken souvlaki and a gyro still appealed to some customers.
Tim Tsujii knows this place well. As the new elections director for Forsyth County, Tsujii quickly became familiar with the dining options nearby, stopping at Courtside Café for breakfast on his way to work a few minutes east on foot. But he’d never been in for lunch, usually stopping in somewhere on Fourth Street instead, until I asked him to come along.
Tsujii and I got to know each other during his tenure in the Guilford County elections office, connecting over food. His parents own Akashi Japanese near the Greensboro Coliseum, and Tsujii and I made a periodic habit of stopping at places like Van Loi II to eat together. That’s where he told me he’d be taking the position in Forsyth, and moving his family. But almost six months pased before we found time to eat together in Winston-Salem.
I’d long been curious about Courtside Café, passing it on late afternoons as I drifted towards Business 40, and I took Tsujii’s regular breakfast excursions as enough of an endorsement. Even out of convenience, I knew he wouldn’t eat somewhere regularly unless it passed muster — he talks about the hashbrowns in particular — and so we went for lunch a few days ago.
Ordering the entrée with two sides in the cafeteria line is the most convenient and affordable way to fill up on the home-style cooking, running under $6. The day we arrived, we chose between meatloaf, pan-fried pork tenderloin, country-style steak and grilled chicken breast for the meat, both adding cornbread, cheese & broccoli casserole and banana pudding to our orders. I picked some fried squash bites, too, while Tsujii rounded his meal out with rice and gravy.
Had we shown up a day earlier he still could’ve gotten the tenderloin, but I would’ve had to swap chicken & dumplings or hamburger steak with sautéed onions for my steak. Apparently the tenderloin is popular — we could’ve chosen it the next day too, or the hamburger steak or breaded chicken tenders.
Courtside Café is the sort of place that the K&W or Cagney’s Kitchen crowd would feel welcome — no words you can’t pronounce, no chef trying to show off, no well-intentioned attempts at fusion. It’s just meant to fit a definition of comfort food, the kind you might find at home or out in the country more often than in the heart of the city.
The name says just as much about who’s there, from folks working in the federal courthouse across the street to people fulfilling their civic duty to probably a couple of those appearing before a judge, or at least their family. I didn’t see any suits during the lunch rush — maybe they’re going somewhere with a higher price point, or lawyers are avoiding clients, or maybe it was just an off day.
My breaded, grilled then baked steak arrived slathered in brown gravy, tasting dramatically better than it initially looked. I took to dipping the slightly dry cornbread and fried squash bits into the extra gravy, a move I recommend, between bites of steak. After trying Tsujii’s pork tenderloin, I could see why it’s a cafeteria-line mainstay, but I wished one of us had ordered the meatloaf. As I ate the banana pudding, I wished I was eating my friend Lamar’s instead.
There’s a reason Courtside Café can sustain a line out the door, and it isn’t just price or proximity. Restaurants abound less than two blocks north, with all sorts of quality food and offering a wide array of experiences, from a casual burger joint to memorable Mediterranean. And Xia, an Asian fusion place, couldn’t hold on in the nearest restaurant space on North Liberty Street.
It’s also the variety, from a chicken Philly to a gyro to pancakes to low-carb and vegetarian options. It’s speed. And it’s also a low-key spot to sit and catch up with someone you haven’t seen in six months, where everything feels easy and there’s nothing to interfere with good conversation.
Visit Courtside Café at 102 W. Third St. #180 (W-S), door on Liberty Street, or at coursidews.com.