Michael D'Amelio opened The Rockford in 1995 at 320 1/2 Glenwood Ave., upstairs from a barber shop, between a plumbing supply company and an abandoned creamery. Across the street, there was a typewriter repair shop that would later become an Irish pub. Long before the area became the Jersey Shore of Raleigh, before the term Glo-So had been slurred, before hot dog stand owners would settle beefs with fisticuffs, D'Amelio seemed to be taking a fool's bet on such a location. Who would actually eat there?
Turns out, most everyone: As D'Amelio often put it, the concept was simple—"a sandwich shop with a bar." The plates were never more than $9, and then there was the ABC—apples, bacon and cheddar drizzled with honey sesame dressing and served between two slices of French bread, which became a must-have for Raleigh foodies. When you ascended the scuff-marked stairs, you'd hear the chattering and cling-clanging of the diners and the steps of the staff doing its dance. When such a thing existed, the smoking section occupied the majority of the space, along with the wood- and copper-topped bar. Framed by Christmas lights and bottled spirits, the mirrors were decorated with pictures of the staff's pets. Smokers were separated from abstainers only by two open doors, and everyone's food came from a clown-car kitchen that somehow produced more than 150 plates every weekend night.
The staff could seem jarring at times: Imagine the cast of Welcome Back, Kotter in a restaurant, rather than a high school in Brooklyn. D'Amelio's straight-man type was set against a rowdy gaggle of artists, musicians, writers and ne'er-do-wells. At the end of most every shift, problems would be resolved, glasses raised, lights turned down and the music way up.
This relationship with his staff made the closing of The Rockford last week, as well as D'Amelio's bar on Hillsborough Street, The Jackpot, such a deep cultural loss for Raleigh. So many artists crossed paths within D'Amelio's rooms, connecting the dots would be impossible. Joe Farmer, of proto-funk rock outfit Johnny Quest and now co-owner of the Humble Pie, hired me as a bar back for Claire Ashby in 2000. She told me stories about selling merch and playing snare drum with Superchunk. A regular Mike Connell schooled me on the British Invasion. My co-workers, Cheetie Kumar and Jamie Williams, played the loudest, most badass rock shows I'd ever seen in off-hours as The Cherry Valence. I got to know Ivan Rosebud while he washed dishes, Kelly Rosebud while she waited tables.
So, to Michael D'Amelio, a toast: Thank you for feeding us, for giving us a job to pay our bills, for never making us wear a uniform, for letting us go on tour and still have a job when we came home, for opening the 5-0 Bar, for opening the Jackpot, for never advertising, for giving us time to suss out what we wanted to do with our lives, for introducing us to our best friends, for second/ third/ fourth chances, for supporting local artists and musicians, for providing a haven for anybody who needed it and for giving me a venue to meet my wife. Cheers.