Holidays at the Angus Barn

 

by Alex Dixon
photography by Juli Leonard

They’re known as the Real Housewives of the Angus Barn. For the past four years, this group of seven women have arrived at the Angus Barn each November. Donning their tool belts, the ladies get to work, setting up elaborate holiday decorations at the nearly 60-year-old Raleigh steakhouse. This is no easy task, from a 30-foot tree in the lobby to lights around the entirety of the building’s exterior. These extensive holiday decorations have become as much of a draw for guests as the renowned food and drinks. As patrons leave the restaurant, they often make reservations for the next year. The restaurant’s 6th annual Christmas Dinner with Biltmore wine pairings, held in its lakeside Pavilion special events space on December 23rd, is already booked.

“We just go all out decorating; every single corner is decorated…even the bathrooms,” second-generation Angus Barn owner Van Eure says. Inspired by the holiday decorations at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, Eure has spared no expense. The holiday spirit can be seen from outside the restaurant, from the lights on the rooftops to the tree that faces Glenwood Avenue from the window of the loft dining room. In the lobby, a small locomotive train navigates around the towering tree that contains differently themed decorations each year. The Wild Turkey Lounge, named for its extensive display of over 600 Wild Turkey bourbon decanters, is decked out in bronze and gold. A snow-filled white Christmas theme inspires the loft dining room décor and giant peppermint candies adorn the red and white main dining room. The kitchen even has its own tree, decorated pink in memory of a manager who was with the restaurant for 44 years. On the first day of December, the kitchen begins making gingerbread cookies, which are delivered by elves (children of the Angus Barn decorators) to each guest as they leave.
The Angus Barn is open all but three days per year: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. And while much attention is given to the holidays, the celebratory atmosphere and attention to detail doesn’t subside whether it’s March or November. Celebrations range from the usual: birthdays—one recent guest turned 103—anniversaries, proposals, and rehearsal dinners to more solemn events. Eure recalls a story in which a family came out to celebrate a last meal with a moribund person because they’d made so many lasting memories at the restaurant.

Eure’s ideal celebratory meal is a 42-ounce, bone-in tomahawk rib eye, which she says should be split, although the menu reads “recommended for two, or a challenge for one.” The restaurant’s wine cellar has become as celebrated as its steaks, earning the restaurant 20 Wine Spectator Grand Awards—reserved for restaurants that offer the highest level of wine service and typically offer more than 1,000 selections.

Little has changed in the way the Angus Barn operates since it opened in June of 1960, but a lot has changed around it. Eure’s father, Thad Eure, Jr. opened the restaurant with business partner Charles Winston on 50-acres halfway between Raleigh and Durham. Eure says Raleigh-Durham International Airport was not much more than a “landing strip” at the time, and a lot of people had doubts about the restaurant’s location. “When we first opened, everybody said we were never going to work,” Eure says. “You had to drive for miles and miles to get out here. It was the cheapest land they could find; that’s why they bought it.” Fire destroyed the restaurant in 1964, but it was quickly rebuilt, with the same lending institutions that labeled the restaurant as a poor risk just years earlier now lined up to offer capital. In 1978, Winston sold his share of the business to Thad Eure, Jr.; 10 years later Thad Eure, Jr. died. Eure, who had been working at the restaurant since she was 14, ran the restaurant with her mother, Alice Eure, who died in 1997. She has owned and operated the restaurant since, retaining the same focus to hospitality as her mother and father. “We’ve tried to maintain the same constant level of service to both the customers and the employees that both my dad and Charles Winston started,” Eure says. “That was what he believed in so much.”

The restaurant has nearly 950 seats and employs 400 people. But serving hundreds of steaks per night and creating an unforgettable occasion for guests leaves opportunities for mistakes and disappointments. Eure says plenty of these have happened, despite the restaurant’s rave online reviews. “It happens a lot, where we mess up, and we do everything in our power to make it right, no matter what it takes,” she says. “We realize people have saved and waited to come out here and if we mess up, then it’s just not acceptable.”
In being a “want to do” not a “have to do” destination, as Eure describes the Angus Barn, the restaurant’s success is subject to things like a dip in the economy. “When times get tight, we’re not something that people automatically do,” she says. And Eure and the restaurant don’t rest on past laurels. The restaurant is frequently cited on industry lists as one of the highest grossing restaurants in America, and they’re constantly upgrading and updating to make sure the Angus Barn stays relevant and successful for generations to come. While guests have come to love the nostalgic feeling of the restaurant, the Angus Barn is constantly adding items to the menu and hosting themed dinners in its wine cellar to provide these new experiences. “We’re always trying to stay one step ahead,” Eure says.

One area of recent growth has been the Angus Barn’s focus on special events. About a decade ago, the restaurant opened the lakeside Pavilion, an open-air facility that stays booked with private corporate events, Christmas parties and weddings. At the Bay 7 special events space in Durham’s American Tobacco District, Angus Barn is the sole caterer.
In any decision Eure makes for the restaurant, she says she always thinks of what her father would do. “If he saw the restaurant now, he’d be blown away.” “We’ve added so much, the wine cellar, the Pavilion…he would love it. Every time I do any project, I think of how he would do it because he always did things so right.”
But no matter how big the restaurant gets or how many new features it adds to the menu, Eure aims to preserve the past that has brought so many guests lasting memories. “A lot of people get really emotional about it,” she says. “[We’ve heard], “Thank you so much for still having the Angus Barn here because all of our family celebrations have been here, and it just brings back such great memories for generations.”