By Bailey Faulkner
Spring has arrived in the High Country, and with it will come green trees, blooming flowers, yearly vacationers and — for Blowing Rock — a fresh take on one of Main Street’s most beloved restaurants, The Speckled Trout Cafe.
While its new iteration, The Speckled Trout Restaurant & Bottle Shop, will keep fresh mountain trout as its High Country staple, The Speckled Trout is currently undergoing major renovations and rebranding and is refocusing on regional Appalachian food.
By the time of the restaurant’s reopening, The Speckled Trout will have entirely new décor and furnishings, comfortable and intimate seating in the restaurant and bottle shop, modern lighting, a new heating and cooling system and fresh, clean paint and flooring throughout.
David Bartlett has teamed up with lifelong friends and neighbors William and Eric Brinker and their wives, Erica and Emily, who have youthful spirits that will now lead the restaurant in its new direction.
In order to understand where The Speckled Trout Restaurant and Bottle Shop is headed in the coming months, a quick history of the restaurant is necessary.
The Speckled Trout Café & Oyster Bar got its start in 1986 when David Bartlett set out to bring his signature trout and southern dishes to Blowing Rock. Before long, Bartlett’s restaurant began generating a great deal of excitement, bringing not only customers from around the region, but also trout-hungry vacationers from around the country.
Since his first day in 1986, Bartlett set out to offer great food to even greater people. After decades of doing just that, Bartlett’s admiration of Blowing Rock has only grown.
“I love Blowing Rock,” Bartlett said. “I’ve had the chance to talk to a million people.”
Thirty years after getting his start, Bartlett has decided that the time has come to step back and pass the torch on to his friends so they can breathe new life into the restaurant for another three decades at least.
“I’m old school. It’s time for the fresh ideas and energy that youth provides,” Bartlett said. “It’s time for a transition and it really is working out well for everyone involved.”
The reason that transition is working out so well is largely due to Bartlett’s relationship with the Brinkers.
“I’ve known the Brinkers since they were born,” Bartlett said.
Originally hailing from Sanford, NC, the Patterson/Brinker family first planted roots in the High Country when William and Eric’s great-grandfather purchased farmland off of Flannery Fork Road in Blowing Rock during the 1950s.
Spending time at the farm as children, William and Eric — now 32 and 38, respectively — came to know Speckled Trout founder Bartlett as a neighbor. William thinks back to one childhood moment with Bartlett in particular.
“I remember wrecking David’s dirt bike when I was about ten years old,” William chuckled as he recalled the event.
Since William’s childhood incident with Bartlett’s dirt bike, the Brinker brothers have become successful businessmen themselves. William is now the managing director at a landfill gas development company that uses gas deposits from landfills as renewable energy sources. Along with his wife Emily, Eric owns a restoration and construction company based in Raleigh.
The lifelong connection between Bartlett and the Brinkers explains why Bartlett, who spent decades calling his own shots for the restaurant, is dealing with The Speckled Trout’s transition so well.
“I’m going to be there to help them anyway I can,” Bartlett said.
The Brinkers are especially thankful for Bartlett’s kindness and the opportunity to carry on what he started over 30 years ago.
“David has done exceptionally well letting us come in, and we want to honor him as much as we can,” William said. “We want to keep doing the signature trout dish ‘David’s way.’”
The Brinker’s love for the High Country and their goal to “help the community” is reflected in their insistence on a regional menu that can be described as “authentic Appalachian food.”
“We’ve decided that our food has to come from as close as we can get it,” Erica said.
The new, more regionally-focused and seasonal lunch and dinner menu is just one of the new features that The Speckled Trout will offer upon its reopening. For many, the most exciting aspect of the restaurant will be its bottle shop.
The bottle shop will offer a highly curated beer and wine selection. In addition, patrons will also be able to sit down at the bar and sip on their choice of 20 draft beers and four draft wines.
“The Brinker family is really into their food and beverages,” William said.
The Brinkers have brought in a lifelong friend and extension of their family, former ASU graduate and front-of-the-house manager Foster Ramsey. Ramsey has an extensive background in food, beverage and design. His primary focus will be to ensure that everyone has a pleasurable experience at The Speckled Trout.
“I take more of a investigative and exploratory role,” Ramsey said. “I believe more in thought than in action. When you put time into thought, you can make up for time lost in action.”
Ramsey has certainly put a great deal of thought into curating the wide selection of craft beers, wines and spirits that will be available at the restaurant upon its opening. Ramsey’s interest to become a beer and wine curator was first sparked when working as a sales associate at a beer and wine shop in Colorado.
“I had the chance to see a Colorado community that supported curiosity and enriched people’s experiences with food and beverage.”
Not knowing much about the intricacies of beer and wine when interviewing for the job at the shop, Ramsey was glad that his boss took a chance on him. As he learned more about the craft beer and wine industry while on the job, Ramsey began to set his eyes on crafting a collection of his own.
“Once I started to understand the stories behind what we sold, it propelled me on the path to curating a nice selection,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey was elated to hear that the Brinkers wanted him to be a part of their plans to open a bottle shop and restaurant in downtown Blowing Rock.
“The Brinkers have always been such a hospitable family. They always have open arms, and they’ve made me feel like family my whole life.”
Having recognized that many restaurant and bar owners back home on the East Coast were seemingly more interested in making money than being part of a community, Ramsey knew that his lifelong friends were in a position to help him pursue his dream of curating a large selection of fine beers and wines in a community-first environment.
“I think I found out that the more you can put your passion into something, the more people will respond to it,” Ramsey said.
More than anything, Ramsey wants to share that passion and knowledge with the High Country.
“I think we are just trying to get people to really think about what they’re drinking and eating so we can help them develop a deeper appreciation for it,” Ramsey said.
Another exciting development for The Speckled Trout will be the addition of a sidewalk on US-221 alongside the restaurant. The town will add the sidewalks, like those lining the majority of downtown Blowing Rock, to give pedestrians easier access to Bass Lake and additional options for a scenic walk through one of North Carolina’s most beautiful towns.
“The sidewalk will be great for the town,” William said. “The road is the town’s gateway to the Parkway, and the sidewalk will run from the corner by the restaurant all the way to the lake.”
The restaurant is also planning to host live music events on certain nights and to create a “casual, community-oriented atmosphere,” as William calls it. The renovated restaurant will also have a few televisions for customers to watch as they dine and drink.
The Brinkers are very thankful for the overwhelmingly kind response that the restaurant has received from the Blowing Rock community. Not new to the High Country, the Brinkers realize the benefits of working together to make Blowing Rock a better place for all who visit.
“Instead of folks simply asking, ‘Who are you?,’ everyone has been positive with things like “Let us know if we can help you,” William said.
One might say that friendliness is largely influenced from the Brinker’s predecessor at The Speckled Trout.
“When it’s all said and done, all you have is your integrity,” the now-retired Bartlett said. “If you live your life making the right decisions, you’ll be able to live with yourself.”
While running a successful restaurant for 30 years is certainly an accomplishment, handing off the reins to a bright and youthful group of hard workers takes strength as well.
Stay tuned for more information about The Speckled Trout Restaurant & Bottle Shop in the coming weeks. As of now, renovations are on schedule, and the restaurant is looking to open by early summer.
You can click here to check out The Speckled Trout on Facebook and keep posted on what’s happening at the restaurant.