Come Hell or High Water, Iconic Durham Restaurant Nana’s Was a Force of Nature. A Longtime Bartender Pays Honor to Its Unique Culture on Its Final Night. | Food Feature | Indy Week

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Come Hell or High Water, Iconic Durham Restaurant Nana’s Was a Force of Nature. A Longtime Bartender Pays Honor to Its Unique Culture on Its Final Night.

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By the time final toasts were made at Nana's following its last night of service on June 30, the calendar had rolled into July. The dozens of late-night revelers in the bar were a mix of present and past employees whose years of service stretched in a near-continuous timeline all the way back to the restaurant's opening in 1992, friends and spouses (some of whom were customers before they were friends and spouses), several tearful regulars, and a fair number of people no one had ever seen before.

That was Nana's. It was a complex extended family whose members never really left—not even after their lives called them away—and shared in its lifeblood whether they were on the payroll or on the reservations list or living on other continents. And the place easily and freely folded in newcomers, right up to the very end—an end no one thought would ever come. It's hard to ponder life without Nana's.

I worked at Nana's for twelve years, which was only the fifth-longest tenure in the restaurant's history—sixth, of course, if you count chef-owner Scott Howell. I returned for the hectic final week of service, along with other Nana's vets, to lend a hand. One of them, who was among the few who surpassed me in tenure, was Brad Weddington, Nana's longtime bartender, who, with his brother, Graham, now co-owns one of its surviving siblings, NanaSteak.

Brad raised his glass and allowed that although its food was what brought people to Nana's, it wasn't why they came back. "Nana's," he said, "was a culture."

To some, that culture could seem insular, even clubby. It was true that you saw the same faces there year upon year, but membership was unrestricted and easy to gain: Show up once, then show up again. And the perception that Nana's was elitist had no basis. By the time it closed, it was no longer anything like Durham's most expensive restaurant—if it ever was—and its portions were almost cartoonishly large compared to similarly priced places. The millionaires and ballers and surgeons and lawyers who populated the place were far outnumbered by schoolteachers, librarians, salespeople, and thousands of other "ordinary" folks who were treated no less royally.

In fact, it didn't matter who you were, as long as you were authentically yourself, because Nana's was always authentically Nana's—fully, unmistakably, unapologetically—and it asked the same of its clientele. Scott may have sometimes "lost [his] way," as he told the The News & Observer in 2016, reflecting on the kitchen accident that nearly killed him and his subsequent addiction, depression, and hospitalization. But he never lost the way of Nana's, which qualified as fine dining of a kind that is leaving this world with little fanfare. Scott didn't like the category, anyway—at least not when he described his restaurant, which seldom put on airs. He had an unerring pretension detector both on the menu and in the dining room. Only what was real endured.

That realness was what gave Nana's its staying power. It was a force of nature—sometimes a brute one, like the notorious floods that overwhelmed it every year or so (Nana's was built in front of a creek and over a culvert that is prone to catastrophic overflow). But the place sailed on, come hell or literal highwater, floorboards warping, funds leaking, someone in the kitchen stirring Nana's famous risotto. Regulars came and went and died of old age, their tables taken by new regulars for whom the place became just as indispensable. Nana's inspired an almost pathological loyalty.

And no wonder. Scott is pathological, as any restaurateur must be. That's not a value judgment; it's a verdict of sympathy. Plenty of people, including Scott himself, have called him worse. In any case, Scott's restaurant was more beloved than he is, and its legacy exceeds him and his food: It's the inimitable, singular culture Weddington identified. That culture carried a strain of craziness that was as essential to working at Nana's as taking orders, cooking food, and wading into chest-high floodwaters with an axe. (Don't ask.) Working with Scott, you saw that to win, you don't outrun your demons, or overcome them. You put them to work in service to your dreams.

You put yourself in service, too. I saw Scott sacrifice his health, wealth, and some personal relationships to keep the place alive, even when it tried to kill him—and not just in the form of the monster grill that fell on him in 2013. (Nana's, of course, chugged on without him.) Accidents and floods are what make the news. A restaurant can crush or drown you every single day, and no renowned career chefs are also genial, reasonable, even-keeled, or well-adjusted.

"It's never nice all the time," Scott said during his final toast, understating the case by a thousand pounds. "If it was nice all the time, then anybody could do it."

Hardly anyone can. There's an episode of M*A*S*H in which an internal army evaluator is sent to the 4077 (the hospital unit number) with instructions to build a case for breaking up its motley crew of louche, infighting malcontents under Colonel Blake's erratic leadership. The evaluator observes "textbook examples of neuroses, psychoses, voyeurism, fetishism, and a few isms I've never even heard of. They're mad, quite mad," he says. But when an especially gruesome flight of wounded soldiers comes in, he watches the entire unit labor intensely, professionally, and harmoniously to save them. Hours later, he concludes, awestruck, "They're impossible people, in an impossible place, doing totally impossible work; and the only act I can think of that would be madder still would be breaking them up."

To many, it seemed mad to break up Nana's, which was as popular as ever after twenty-five years. But madness has always been Scott's method. The reasons are many and knotty, but in the end, the restaurant closed for the same reason it stayed open so long—because Scott wanted it to.

As he spoke on the final night, sometimes through tears, his resolve was audible in his voice, his humor visible in his clothing. He was wearing pink shorts and a black faux-snakeskin jacket whose lining was entirely silkscreened with portraits of Elvis. It was the only time I'd ever seen him wear anything so outlandish, and it was appropriate for the night he left the building. He thanked his staff generously, graciously, and then concluded with a few final words.

"People knew that we cared about them. It wasn't just about us. It was about them. That was the biggest thing we did. It was a privilege for us to have people here. We didn't treat it like it was a privilege for them to be here. That's why we won."

Nana's closed six years after Magnolia Grill, its seminal fine-dining cousin. Their quarter-century lifespans were nearly identical. They're forever linked in local culinary history (Scott cooked at Magnolia before opening Nana's), and their lineage dominates our culinary present. Unlike Magnolia's Ben Barker, though, Scott isn't retiring. He has new projects already underway; the culture lives on. But there's no successor to Nana's. An era has ended. "Durham," Weddington said, "will never be the same."

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