By David Coulson (Reprinted from High Country Magazine, July 2014)
There was a time when one of the last places in the High Country a person would have looked for nightlife was Banner Elk.
But this once sleepy college town, nestled between ski resorts like Sugar Mountain, Beech Mountain and Hawksnest, has gradually constructed a new persona in recent years.
Downtown Banner Elk now features a bevy of activities nearly every night and has built a reputation as a place to go for music, dancing, art, watching sports together and — most of all — fine cuisine in a comfortable, friendly, relaxed and safe environment.
At the center of this cultural renaissance is Sorrento’s Italian restaurant, one of the hallmarks of a town long known for being something of a stalwart for dining in the region.
Sorrento’s originally opened in 1986 when this Italian family realized that there was a large void in the High Country dining experience and the enterprise has grown by leaps and bounds ever since.
“It was a great opportunity,” said Angelo Accetturo, who oversees the family operation now after growing up around the business and learning his craft from the ground floor up. “Twenty years ago, I was cooking on the line.”
Sorrento’s is still presenting one of the best Italian dining experiences you can find in the High Country, but the area around this fine restaurant also features the Sushi Club for fish and prime rib lovers and Bayou Smokehouse and Grill for those who like Cajun, barbecue and other American standards.
But the area is about more than its great food. There is a variety of music that rivals the gamut of cuisine.
Bayou presents rock, blues and other pop styles in its Concert in the Courtyard series every Tuesday. The Sushi Club is the place for jazz on Wednesday evenings and Friday is reserved for the fun of the karaoke experience. On Saturdays, the Sushi Club is transformed into a Miami Beach-styled dance club, with music from a live DJ.
Every night, you can stop by Barra, a bar that has been transformed into a comfortable environment for patrons to watch sports, play games and enjoy drinks, or even cigars with friends.
There is also an art gallery where people can view the works of several local artists, or even take out brush and canvas and take a try at their own work of art.
After other restaurants and businesses close, workers come to the area to unwind, enjoy late-night activity and grab a bite to eat. There is even a fire pit in the middle of the complex, encouraging folks to venture from one venue to another, or just relax.
“There is a village downtown now,” said Angelo Accetturo. “It has been 10 years in the making, but we have created something. It is an entertainment complex where people can come.”
In 2011, veteran jazz trumpeter and Banner Elk resident Shane Chalke set out to put together a new band.
The result was the Shane Chalke BE Jazz Band, which plays every Wednesday evening from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Sushi Club in Banner Elk.
Chalke, who also plays the flugelhorn, recruited piano player Jim Fleri, bass player Ben McPherron and drummer Michael Wills for his band. And Chalke’s long list of musical contacts allows for him to bring in a different performer to sit in with the band each week.
There is a decidedly “cool” vibe to this band, which has been influenced by the likes of Miles Davis, Chet Baker, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Clark Terry, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins and others.
Many locales offer a place to enjoy drinks, food, games and even cigars for patrons, but the Barra experience is unique.
At the heart of this Banner Elk establishment is a finely crafted bar that dates back over 100 years ago. It was originally built in London, England and eventually found its way to Tampa, FL.
When the place where it was located was converted into an Outback restaurant several years ago, a craftsman named Don Walstead traded some work for this historical structure.
Walstead then called his friend Angelo Accetturo and said “I have the perfect bar for you.”
The bar was disassembled, transported to Banner Elk and then reassembled at Barra to help create a unique ambience, which is also enhanced by fine, comfortable leather chairs and coaches to make for a leisurely place to enjoy for a relaxing time.
Combining several key elements to create a multi-faceted experience, the Sushi Club has become a local favorite in the Banner Elk night scene.
Fish and other ingredients are flown in fresh every day and prepared exquisitely to give patrons a great dining experience, whether their taste ranges towards raw, or cooked items.
There are nightly food and drink specials, with Cajun specialties on Wednesday, prime rib on Thursdays and seafood specials ranging from Maine lobster to fish and chips on Fridays.
But the Sushi Club is about more than food and drinks.
Wednesdays are Jazz Night at the Sushi Club, with trumpeter Shane Chalke presenting a four-piece house band that plays cool stylings and popular standards from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and beyond.
A guest musician is also brought in every week to sit in with the band and provide variety. Friday is usually karaoke night, creating a fun atmosphere for friends and new acquaintances to enjoy.
And on Saturdays, a variety of DJs transform the Sushi Club into one of the best dance scenes in the High Country, with the lights and music creating a Miami South Beach style of entertainment for those who love Electronic Dance Music.
The unique lighting creates a great atmosphere for enjoying a night of dancing and the latest trends on the EDM scene. It provides a dance-club experience that partiers would be more likely to find in a much bigger city.
BAYOU BAR – CONCERTS IN THE COURTYARD
After seeing the success of some of the other live music events in Banner Elk, the Bayou Smokehouse and Grill decided to jump into the mix a few years back with its Concerts in the Courtyard series.
After trying other evenings, Bayou settled on Tuesday nights for its concerts, currently featuring the Whip Daddys and their energetic mix of beach music, blues, rock and party tunes.
“Tuesday is a nice atmosphere,” said Bayou owner Winston Ammann. “It is real family oriented.”
On a recent Tuesday night, a group of listeners joined in to help the band sing one of its songs.
“They could have been their back-up singers,” said Ammann. “Everyone was having so much fun.”
Local musicians Dave Calbert, Hope Harvey and Dennis Lacey are among the regulars who form the Whip Daddys, but with the group’s connections within the High Country Music community, you never know who might show up to sit in. “People are drawn to the boardwalk,” Ammann said. “It is like a festival atmosphere.”
One of the features of Tuesday nights at the Bayou is something called “Wine Amnesty.” Patrons can pick a bottle of wine in the Bayou General Store and purchase it for store shelf prices before taking it to the concert to enjoy.
There is also free wine tasting every Tuesday at Bayou.
The popular Bayou General Store also features a large collection of craft beers, hot sauces, barbecue sauces, unique gifts and even books published by local authors.
A centerpiece of the restaurant is the Bayou bar, where people can enjoy a variety of beer on tap, or the wide array of craft beers, enjoy from a large wine list, or partake of mixed drinks.
There are also plenty of televisions to enjoy the best sporting events of the night and a pool table to pursue competition of another kind.
Owners David, Winston and Lee Ammann brought their love of food from their days growing up in Louisiana and Texas.
They owned a popular Charlotte restaurant called Bayou Kitchen — a business that grew out their successful catering company that served clients such as the Carolina Panthers’ Richardson family, Winston Cup drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ken Schrader, Trammel Crow, ProLogis, Childress Klein and Mary Tribble Creations.
Since opening the new Bayou in Banner Elk 11 years ago, the Ammanns have embraced the culture of the High Country.
“We came up here to enjoy the weather and be outside,” said Ammann.
And the Concerts in the Courtyard are great for getting locals and visitors alike into the same mood.
“One of the things I like about Banner Elk is that you can come and park at one place and do a lot of other things,” Ammann said. “I appreciate the safety people find while having a good time in Banner Elk.”
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