Undercurrent Restaurant: Celebrating twenty years in Downtown Greensboro

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Undercurrent Restaurant is still at the top of the list for farm-to-table elegant dining

If Ben Roberts had his way all those years ago, he would have opened a 90-seat restaurant in Clemmons instead of creating one of the most influential culinary brands in the Triad, one that has lasted for 20 years and flowed from one end of downtown Greensboro to the other.

And while fortunes have risen and fallen all over downtown, Undercurrent has always stayed true to its original purpose.

“What I really wanted to do was open a small, neighborhood restaurant,” Roberts remembers. “About 40-50 patrons, an open kitchen so I could keep my hands in the kitchen and my eye on the dining room.”

Instead of the Clemmons space, Roberts was persuaded to take over an existing concern, Su Peterson’s Undercurrent, a restaurant half the size and in a downtown district just awakening from a decades-long slumber. This was before the ballpark. Before Triad Stage. Before the Green Bean. Besides the Broach Theatre and Two Art Chicks, South Elm was a wasteland, the wrong side of the tracks.

But it had a small kitchen with a cutout looking onto the dining room, big picture windows to the street and a quaint bar area. It was big enough, at the time, to accommodate everyone in town interested in a seasonal menu prepared by an actual chef, using local, fresh ingredients with the touch of artistryundercurrent dinner

It was a bistro in the truest sense. And while downtown Greensboro grew in fits and starts, seeds were planted at Undercurrent that would bear fruit for years to come.

In 2006, it came time to move when the demand for Undercurrent’s brand of approachable elegance outgrew the small space on South Elm. The bar was too small, and private events shut down the entire place, alienating regulars. Catering was an impossibility in that tiny kitchen. And there was no outdoor seating.

The new space, Undercurrent’s current location on Battleground Avenue on the north end of downtown Greensboro, has more seats in the dining room, a private event space named after former patron and lifelong downtown Greensboro resident Jack Wagner, as well as a lush private patio and triple the bar space.

Undercurrent Restaurant327 Battleground Ave. GSO

“You can get married here, or come for a drink on Thursday night,” Wes Wheeler says.

Once in the new location, Roberts began to harvest the crop he planted so long ago. Chef Michael Harkenreader, who started in the kitchen on South Elm, was elevated to Chef de Cuisine. And after six years as employees, brothers Chris and Wesley Wheeler took over the operations as managing partners while Ben and Susie started their next business venture: a medical clinic in Fancy Gap, Va.

Wes, who started as a bartender in 2009, handles the front of the house while Chris, who came on that same year, handles the back end.

Together the team carries on the traditions set on South Elm Street, continuing relationships with local farmers like Massey Creek Farms, Goat Lady Dairy, Rudd Farm and other hyperlocal and regional purveyors, as well as with the hundreds of regular customers that have gathered over the years — some of the original patrons on Ben’s opening night are still coming in for dinner.

Undercurrent Restaurant, traditionally known for exceptional service and seasonal menus, continues to thrive with the recent addition of the Pollinator Garden adding to the ambiance of their private patio dining. The 40-seat Wagner Room, named after lifelong downtown Greensboro resident Jack Wagner, is perfect for meetings and private events. The bar and lounge area has a life of its own not only in the early evenings and late nights but during Sunday brunch service when friends and family come together. Twenty years on, Undercurrent Restaurant is still a favorite foodie destination in downtown Greensboro.

Even now, as the neighborhood around it sees fortunes rise and fall, Undercurrent Restaurant brings an oasis of culinary stability to downtown.

Just like it always has.

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