Amid the bustling pubs, coffee houses, sushi bars and high-end restaurants downtown, a forgotten piece of Raleigh’s culinary history sits shuttered and forlorn on Wilmington Street.
The long-closed Raleigh Sandwich Shop is a relic from an era when family-run grills, luncheonettes and diners were the mainstays of downtown eateries. These small, unpretentious lunch counters were commonplace downtown well into the 1960s. Nowadays only a handful (if that many) are still around.
Back in the early 1970s, when I lived in Boylan Heights, I often ate at the Raleigh Sandwich Shop. It was inexpensive and they served plain good food. As I was a vegetarian at the time, I usually ordered a bowl of pinto beans with grilled onions, cheese and a dash of Tobasco to top it all off! I liked the grilled cheese sandwich, too.
The place was dimly lit, and some would say a little grimy, but it was real — no frou-frou lighting fixtures or pricey wall art here! The clientele was a mixed bag, and it was not unusual to see men in suits rubbing elbows with blue-collar workers.
I especially remember the owner, Christ Capetanos, standing behind the old-fashioned lunch counter in his white apron and paper hat. He was a friendly, congenial man, who seemed to have genuine affection for his customers. In 1989, after nearly 40 years behind the lunch counter, Mr. Capetanos retired. And the Raleigh Sandwich Shop closed for good.
The N&O profiled Christ Capetanos in its Life Stories series back in April. Turns out he had a very interesting backstory which I never knew about. He was quite a remarkable individual!
When [Capetanos] got out [of the army in 1952], he went to work for his brother [John] at the Raleigh Sandwich Shop, a hot dogs, pork chops, cuppa-joe kind of place a block from the State Capitol… At its core, the business was, of course, about food. But there were opportunities for moral stands as well. The restaurant was a de facto meeting place for working-class whites and blacks at a time when the two races didn’t mix in public. There was a partition with blacks and whites on either side, but they shared a jukebox. ‘The cafe was, historically, the only place I know of where blacks and whites ate together in Raleigh,’ said Leon Capetanos, Christ Capetanos’ nephew and John Capetanos’ son… He took comfort in the relationships he formed with his regular customers, in the free meals he quietly gave to people who could not afford to pay.
– Bonnie Rochman, N&O
According to the article, a restoration of the building at 215 S. Wilmington St. is underway and “could be completed within a year.” I don’t know about that, but whatever does gets done, I sure hope they keep that iconic sign painted on the storefront’s plate-glass window and the old-fashioned lunch counter inside. It would be a fitting memorial to the man who personified the Raleigh Sandwich Shop.