At the Table: Irregardless Cafe

Irregardless
it’s Thanksgiving

by Liza Roberts
photographs by Madeline Gray

On Thanksgiving Day, Arthur and Anya Gordon will be thankful for many things: For the biggest day of the year at their restaurant, Irregardless Café & Catering; for the longevity of their business, now celebrating its 42nd year; for the love of one another; and for their enduring faith.

“Thanksgiving is a peak experience for our restaurant,” Arthur Gordon says. On Nov. 23, he will serve an extraordinary 1,400 meals – 700 seated and 700 carryout – to a growing stable of regulars who have come to rely on this Raleigh institution for their annual, quintessential American feast.

One regular is well-known Raleigh artist Kyle Highsmith, whose devotion to Irregardless inspired a deal, proposed by Gordon: Highsmith and his wife eat for free at Irregardless once a week; once a year, Highsmith gives the Gordons a sizable, colorful landscape.

“It’s turned into a wonderful friendship,” says Highsmith, who dines with his wife at Irregardless most Wednesdays and regularly celebrates birthdays and holidays with the Gordons. The restaurant “is just a very unique place to eat, for the food, for the atmosphere, and for a very special kind of charm.” Some of that charm comes from Highsmith’s art, which is as much a part of the Irregardless experience as the live music that plays there nightly.

All of it – plus a menu steeped in a vegetarian tradition with allowances for the rest of us – has turned the 120-seat Irregardless dining room into a second home for many. Arthur Gordon rebuilt it in 1994 after it was gutted by fire, staunchly committed to the spot where he started in 1974. Still, he insists: “You can’t stand in one spot for 42 years.” He means it metaphorically. Change, he says, is the secret to his success.

Originally a strict vegetarian restaurant, Irregardless has expanded its menu over the years to include fish, then poultry, then red meat; Gordon says 40 years ago he became the first restaurant in Raleigh to serve Sunday brunch; decades later, the devout Jew says his was one of the first local restaurants to stay open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Gordon has also doubled down on his once-unlikely location across the street from Central Prison, buying his building and a parking lot across the street outright. Like many of his gambles, his real estate investments have more than paid off as the city has grown and prospered around him.

Likewise, Gordon’s Thanksgving menu – featuring new recipes every year – is a reliable but ever-changing standby, justifiably described as a Raleigh tradition.

Walter sat down with the Gordons one recent afternoon to hear more about Thanksgiving at Irregardless: how it evolved; what it means; what it entails; and how to make it at home.

Arthur and Anya Gordon: On Thanksgiving

Arthur: “You can’t come up with a formula and say this is it, this is what we’re going to do, and no questions asked … It always has to be open to interpretation. That willingness to change is what led to Thanksgiving … It used to be that Thanksgiving was a really slow week for the restaurant, because everyone was having Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, so we would close on Thursday, and then the day after Thanksgiving was slow, because everyone was having leftovers.

“…The first time we were asked to do Thanksgiving was by the Triangle Vegetarian Society. They asked if we would be willing to do Thanksgiving for 200 vegetarians.”

Anya (who married Arthur in 1998 and began working at the restaurant that year): “This was probably around 2000, 2001.”

Arthur: “And you know, while they were here, the phone was ringing off the hook, so the next year, when they didn’t bring in 200 people…”

Anya: “You’re telling an awfully (businesslike) side of the story! You want to tell how much we want to feed people!” They both laugh.

Arthur: “But it always needs to have a bottom-line orientation.”

Anya, smiling: “That’s why Arthur’s still in business.”

Arthur: “That’s that desire to change … But the first few years (of serving Thanksgiving) were a little brutal, to say it mildly…”

Anya: “It’s a learning curve.”

Arthur: “That’s how you learn. By making your mistakes. And then fast-forward to now, we’re doing 700 people in the dining room, and then 700 people in takeaways, and we combine that with every meal we serve, we donate a dollar to Rise Against Hunger. It’s a win-win situation.”

Faith as a guide

Arthur, who paid his employees their regular wages to volunteer at nonprofits including the InterFaith Food Shuttle for the 11 months it took to rebuild his restaurant after a devastating fire: “My heart’s delight is to walk the path of humility, to appreciate all of the blessings I have received, and to make the world a better place. To treat people the way you want to be treated. To be generous, to be abundant. Logic says to you: If I give it away, I’ll have less. But your heart tells you: If you give it away in the right way, the abundance of the blessing will come back to you tenfold. And you won’t be able to count the blessings that you receive. So that’s been the strategy of the restaurant.

“… I can’t prove to you that God exists. I can’t prove it to anybody. But if the actions that I take are based on the idea that God exists, then I have to do what I think God would want me to do … Running a restaurant is nothing but hospitality.”

Preparing the feast

Arthur: “To serve 1,400 Thanksgiving dinners, we roast 30 35-pound turkeys, and another 40 or 50 10-to-12-pound turkeys for takeout … in the restaurant, we take around 16 people every 15 minutes. It’s no surprise what people are going to order. Out of the 700 people, 400 are going to order turkey dinners. But we have everything else, we’ll have prime rib, we’ll have lobster manicotti, we’ll have fresh fish, we’ll have three or four vegetarian options, but for the most part, everyone wants turkey.”

Anya: “You want to tell the story of how you make the turkey and how you keep it so moist and luscious?”

Arthur: “You don’t cut it when it’s hot, and the other secret is you should brine the turkey … And a lot of people put it in a 300, 400 degree oven, which causes the outside of the turkey to dry out, waiting for the internal temperature to get up to 140 degrees. So you end up with dry white meat waiting for the dark meat to get there.

“… I would highly suggest that the average person should really go out for Thanksgiving. It’s a really hard meal to cook, and there’s 100 ingredients in it, and you’re out of nutmeg. And you go to the grocery store, and it’s a 30-minute line to get nutmeg, which you don’t really need, but the recipe called for it.”

Anya: “We have some of our regulars come, and some do the takeout, but we also get a whole new crowd in on Thanksgiving. It appeals to a different part of the community, to go out for Thanksgiving. It’s a very joyous event.”

Arthur: “It feels like a big family. You’re just a member of a big family.”

Thanksgiving dinner at Irregardless Café & Catering:
Roast turkey
Sage stuffing
Green beans
Gravy
Rolls
Sweet and buttermilk mashed potatoes
Cranberry orange relish
Apple or pumpkin pie

Caramel pumpkin pecan pie

by Irregardless pastry chef Rondi Goodman

Filling:

2 eggs

1 15-ounce can pumpkin

½ cup cream

¾ cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon flour

½ teaspoon vanilla

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

⅛ teaspoon cloves

Topping:

½ cup brown sugar

3 tablespoons melted butter

¼ teaspoon salt

Pie Crust: Goodman prepares her own pie dough, but recommends that home cooks unfamiliar with pastry dough purchase a high-quality prepared pie crust from Fresh Market or Whole Foods, and bake it for 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix eggs, pumpkin, and cream in a mixer until combined.

Add brown sugar, flour, vanilla, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves into pumkin-egg-cream mixture; continue mixing until combined.

Pour into prebaked pie shell. Bake 45 minutes. Meanwhile, combine topping ingredients in a bowl.

After pie has baked 45 minutes, gently place topping mixture on top of pie; bake another 15 minutes.

Cranberry
Orange Relish

2 10-ounce cans whole cranberries

4 peeled, de-seeded, diced naval oranges

3 tablespoons grated ginger

In a saucepan, lightly saute grated ginger over medium heat. Add cranberries and diced oranges to pan and cook 15-20 minutes. Let cool, then puree cranberry mixture in a blender. Serve as a topping for stuffed acorn squash, roasted turkey, or any other dish you’d like. 

Stuffed Acorn Squash 

Squash:

2 acorn squashes, cut in half, seeds removed

4 teaspoons molasses

½ cup cooked black beans

1 cup uncooked quinoa; 1½ cup lightly salted water, boiled

1 large sweet potato, roasted and diced

1 avocado, sliced

Dressing: 

½ cup fresh lemon juice

1¼ cup olive oil

2 cups finely chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

2 cloves garlic minced (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Take de-seeded acorn squash halves, place on a pan, and put a teaspoon of molasses in the bottom of the squash cavity. Bake for 30 minutes, then take out of oven and allow to cool.

Stir quinoa into the lightly salted boiling water. Bring water back to a boil, then cover pot and turn down heat to a low simmer for 10 minutes. Afterward, turn cooked quinoa out onto a pan to allow to cool and dry.

Prepare dressing for quinoa filling: Blend all ingredients except olive oil. Slowly pour oil into the blended dressing ingredients

Mix cooked quinoa, diced sweet potatoes, and black beans together. Pour dressing over mixture and toss. Fill acorn squash halves with tossed quinoa mixture. Lower oven temperature to 300 degrees, and bake stuffed squashes for 30 minutes. Serve topped with avocado slices and optional
cranberry-orange relish. Serves 4