As the sun sets on downtown Winston-Salem, the fire is just beginning to burn for the last time at the Tavern at Old Salem. The tongues of the candle flames in each window wake up slowly, rising, putting on the last show inside the house. The flickering flames dance as if they’re eager to meet each guest that steps across the threshold. In the distance, the Home Moravian Church bell rings out five times, each more solemn than the last. Fresh wreaths and Christmas garland of longleaf pine hang silent and cold on the porch. The scraping of boots and clomping of high heels gets louder and faster as guests traverse along the 250-year-old streets and cobblestones to come to the Tavern.
Inside, the staff prepare for the restaurant’s final supper.
Clad in a freshly pressed shirt, bespectacled tavern owner Rick Keiper smiles and lovingly pats the hosts on the shoulder as they ask questions about a few of the night’s reservations. Later in the evening, a large party from Joyce Farms, one of the restaurant’s main purveyors, will grace the place once more, to send the restaurant gently into that good night.
Outside, a colonial 20-star flag moves slightly with the passing breeze. Diners bundled in their winter’s best gather in the front foyer. The first couple with a reservation walks in. When asked why they chose the tavern for their last meal of 2019, Kayla Lakey says, her husband, Samuel, made the reservation as a holiday surprise.
“This is our first time here,” she says. “My mom came and loved it and told us we should come.”
I had a first-time date here too, once upon a time. We laughed over spiced crawfish and grit cakes, glasses filled with generous pours of white wine and frothy syllabub desserts accented with diced strawberries, served with two spoons. Rick’s son and former tavern chef, Jared Keiper met his wife here too, for the first time. She was on a date with another man.
So many firsts happened here, but tonight is the last.
The night’s specials (a sous vide short-rib dish with roasted fingerling potatoes, tomato and green-bean hash and smoked pepper jelly), the desserts, including the 20 chocolate bourbon pies made by Lori Keiper fly out of the kitchen. Every dish, every pat of butter, every piece of silverware are served with just as much care and detail as if it were the first night of service.
The Keipers took over the restaurant in 2012 on a whim. While Jared and his brother Jordan have both moved on from the restaurant and are thriving in other sectors of the culinary field, they both come back for the last time tonight to work with their family in the kitchen and send off the restaurant right. Built in 1816, as an annex to the original 1784 Tavern, records show many of the former owners were husband and wife pairs. Putting their mark on history, the Keipers are the 24th keepers of the tavern. Not the first family to be stewards of this historic place and not the last.
Lucy Tabron has worked at the Tavern for more than 30 years. Affectionately called Ms. Lucy, she worked under the former tavern owner, No. 23, and decided to stay on. She was at Hanes Hosiery toiling away in the collections department during the day and scuttled to the Tavern to host at night. She put her daughter through college, retired from Hanes and continued to work at the restaurant five nights a week.
“I don’t really know what I’m going to do next,” she says, shrugging. “Take January off, rest relax and figure out what to do next, I suppose.”
“I’m going to pick up, pack up and spend time with my 87-year old mother in Pennsylvania and rest,” said Rick, when asked about his plans.
Everything in the restaurant is owned by the Keipers, exclusive of the tables and chairs. The family plans to liquidate the restaurant’s physical assets and post the sale on Facebook. The current landlord, Old Salem Museum and Gardens, has other plans for the space and are entertaining offers until the middle of February. The fate of the place may be up in the air, but that does not change the great food and the memories made in this historic spot.
It’s the end of an era, the end of a decade, but the beginning of a new story to be told about the Tavern at Old Salem.