When executive chef William Wessling gets a chance to step out of the kitchen at the Cajun Queen, he likes to stand by the front door and think about all the people who have come through it.
The brick house at 1800 E. 7th St. is 100 years old now, and it’s been a restaurant for the last 34 years, so that’s a lot of people: Couples celebrating anniversaries. Families celebrating birthdays. Jazz musicians tromping upstairs to the bar. Even a house ghost who might not come through the door, but sometimes makes her — probably her — presence known.
“It’s almost like stepping out of Charlotte,” Wessling says. “Three elements make it work: The house, the live music and the food.”
In the rush to embrace new restaurants, it’s easy to forget about the gems, the places that do something more than serve you a meal. They’re places that are woven into the fabric of Charlotte, forming their own communities. Deep down, doesn’t every restaurant owner hope to become that kind of place? So we looked closer at the Cajun Queen, one of Charlotte’s gems, to see what makes it special.
Tim Freer, a co-owner and general manager, says there are hundreds of regulars, and they call him all the time. The top two requests: a table upstairs, near the band. Or a table downstairs, away from the band. With four dining rooms and an upstairs balcony overlooking Independence Park, he can usually pull it off.
“That’s my job, to make sure they feel like it’s ‘their’ place.”
Freer likes to say that the Cajun Queen is a destination restaurant: You’ll pass a lot of other restaurants to get there. Most people don’t just stop in on a whim. You go to the Cajun Queen because you planned to go to the Cajun Queen.
One of the original owners, Sid Gottfried, opened the Cajun Queen in 1985, in the middle of the craze for Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish, when it seemed like the whole country was going to choke on clouds of peppery smoke. An early restaurant partner, Pat Frieda, was from New Orleans.
When the restaurant opened under the original chef, Howard Winter, Gottfried brought in several cooks from Louisiana for several months, to teach the staff the basics, from roux to etoufee.
Wessling was Winter’s first hire, as a line cook. In his first years at the Queen, he worked while he went through the culinary program at Central Piedmont Community College. He replaced Winter as executive chef when Winter retired in 2007.
Sid Gottfried eventually handed over the reins to his son Robert, who’s still the majority owner, along with Freer and Wessling.
Even though Wessling has spent more than 30 years cooking Creole and Cajun classics, he’s only been to New Orleans once. He doesn’t feel the lack: The Cajun Queen menu was set in stone years ago and doesn’t change much.
The basics are always there: Shrimp gumbo (a tomato-based Creole version, not the roux-thickened Cajun style). Etoufee (that is roux-based, with a thick, brown sauce). A choice of Diane (milder and more buttery) or Creole (tomato-based) sauces. Always blackened steak, fish, chicken and pork tenderloin. The dessert menu always has bread pudding, along with pecan and Toll House cookie pies, cheesecake and key lime pie.
The only big change in years: They used to serve boiled crawfish in the shell, but people didn’t like getting their fingers messy, much less sucking the heads. These days, they only serve peeled crawfish in the etoufee sauce.
Barbecue shrimp, swimming in a buttery/spicy sauce, is so popular, you can get it in a bowl as an appetizer or over rice as an entree. (Get it as a appetizer and make sure they bring you a spoon: The sauce is so good, you’ll want to drink it.)
“People know what they want when they’re coming in,” Wessling says, whether it’s fried oysters or blackened fish.
Wessling and the kitchen crew work in a kitchen so small, they coordinate their moves like infielders, working carefully around the massive stove.
Everything except the bread (from Nova’s Bakery) is made from scratch. During the day, they make 5-gallon pots of gumbo and gallon-size batches of red beans and sauces. When they open for dinner, one side of the stove is cleared off to become the blackening station.
The house, with Mardis Gras beads dangling from the trees and original fireplaces in both front rooms, is as much a part of the experience as hot sauce on an oyster. Years ago, Gottfried tried to expand with a location in Pineville, but it didn’t work: It didn’t have the house.
Originally built in 1918 as a private home, it later become a boarding house. (The house ghost, which is sometimes blamed for tossing ice out of the basement ice machine or straws around in the upstairs bar, is believed to be a former owner. She was a proper lady and is apparently upset that there’s now a bar in her old bedroom.)
What haunts Freer isn’t the ghost: It’s the maintenance. Keeping a busy restaurant in an old place like this takes constant maintenance. They’re open seven days a week, including Sunday brunch, and that kind of traffic takes a toll.
“My plumber, my electrician and my handyman are all on speed dial,” he likes to joke.
The final element that brings in Cajun Queen regulars is the music. Calling themselves the 7th Street Gator Band, a rotating roster of 12 regular musicians, along with occasional players who drop in to jam, plays every night and at brunch on Sunday. Local legends have played or still play, like Bill Hanna and the late Skinny Harris.
If they didn’t have the Cajun Queen, Freer says, they’d all be playing at home in their garages.
The idea of a New Orleans-themed restaurant 715 miles from the French Quarter can seem a little like a theme park. But the Cajun Queen has stuck around so long that it’s become a tradition that’s as much Charlotte as Bourbon Street.
When New Orleans transplants come in to eat (and they do), Wessling says they usually say one of two things.
“They either say, ‘it’s not as good as my mother’s,’ or ‘Thank God you’re here, because this is as close as I get to my mother’s.’ “
Cajun Queen’s New Orleans BBQ Shrimp
The Cajun Queen sells bottles of its New Orleans-style spice mix. Or you can use another version, such as Emeril Lagasse’s Emeril’s Essence.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons Cajun barbecue seasoning (such as the Cajun Queen house brand or Emeril’s Essence)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
About 3/4 pound of medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup light lager beer (Wessling uses Milwaukee’s Best)
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped green onions
Preheat a large skillet. Add the vegetable oil and heat. Add the seasoning, Worcestershire, garlic and shrimp. Saute until the shrimp are lightly pink and almost cooked. Add the stock, beer, butter and green onions and cook until the butter is melted. Remove the shrimp and place in a bowl. Pour the sauce over them and serve.
Yield: 1 serving.
This article originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.