Food

Art’s Place

  • By Amber Nimocks
  • Photography by Matt Rose

Tammy Nichols has owned and operated the Kitty Hawk restaurant since 2008, but customers don’t have to look very hard to see the essence of the burger joint Art Glidden built 30 years ago.

Owner-Tammy-Nichols

The spirit of Art Glidden hovers in every nook of his old cafe, as friendly as the celebrity photos that grin from the walls, as eternal as the sand that clings to the corners. For new owner Tammy Nichols, Glidden is a welcome ghost, guiding her as she leads Art’s Place, the restaurant he opened in 1978, through its fourth decade.

The squat building is scarcely as big as a pair of double-wide trailers squished together. It sits on the beach road, its worn porch facing the sea, with only N.C. Highway 12’s narrow band of asphalt and a row of oceanfront houses holding back the wilds of the Atlantic.

Folks who haven’t stopped by since Glidden handed the keys to Nichols a few years ago will find the exterior of the old place transformed. A coat of paint, blue as the deep sea, refreshed the brick-and-shingle exterior and serves as the backdrop for local artist David Wise’s mural of fantastical, aquatic scenes. But the most important element — the familiar, comfortable atmosphere — remains the same.

Much as it was when Glidden was alive and in charge, the menu offers grub to satisfy hungry beachcombers and surfers, not nouveau cuisine for travelers with lots of spending green. And it’s the burgers that keep locals and tourists coming back.

As with any great hamburger, it all starts with the beef. It’s ground fresh, and the staff makes the patties by hand, Nichols says. The first bite provides proof: The grind is fine but not mealy, and the meat is moist but not greasy with an honest, hearty flavor.

It takes more than meat to create a great hamburger, though, and Art’s Place offers lots more. Everything that goes into this elemental meal drips with the sincerity of the place itself: the crisp-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, hand-cut fries; the slippery, sweet fried onions; the homemade chili. On top, the fluffy kaiser-roll pinwheels are soft, but the toasted undersides give them the heft to handle the juicy meat and gooey cheeses and chili, keeping everything together until the moment the burger meets your mouth.

Nichols can count 17 different toppings in her head. But in actuality, the possibilities are exponentially vast because Art’s Place will make burgers any way its customers want them.

“If they ask me for something, I’m going to do it,” Nichols says. “If it’s there, I’ll do it.”

Art’s blessing

An Outer Banks resident for 20 years or so, Nichols came to Art’s Place on occasion but didn’t become a regular until a few years before Glidden died in 2010. By that time, she had raised four children. Glidden’s heart was failing and his business was faltering when Nichols got to know him. Gradually, as Nichols realized the severity of Glidden’s situation, she transitioned from frequent customer to friend and successor.

“The restaurant was in a moment of difficulty,” she says. “They were having a hard time, and we were there, and things just sort of happened from there.”

It didn’t matter that she had no restaurant experience; she learned from a master of hospitality. When Glidden was well enough to be at the restaurant, he guided her transition, and he prepared his regulars for a new face behind the bar.

“I’ve got to tell you, Art gave me a blessing,” Nichols says. “Art was there every day. … We would sit outside, and we would greet people together. He told me what he did, and I did things similar to what he did.”

Spend an evening at Art’s Place, and you’ll see a cross section of the Kitty Hawk community bound up the short staircase and through the screen door. Two elementary-school age children sit at the bar, watching the action at the grill. A singer-songwriter with a scruffy, salt-and-pepper beard strums his guitar and croons a Gordon Lightfoot song up front. A gray-haired couple in their 60s orders the nightly special while a quartet of 30-somethings cheer on the action on the big screen on the wall.

Debbie Glidden, Art’s sister-in-law, says Art knew how to draw people out and create a spirit of conviviality. “The place has good energy,” she says. “There’s a lot of kids who do come here, and Arthur was close to a lot of them.”

She recalls the regulars whose 3-year-old girl used to paint pictures for Art and deliver them to the nursing home where he spent his waning years. Nichols and her partner spent a fair share of time visiting Art there as well.

“They were very, very good to Art,” Debbie Glidden says. “They looked after him a lot. … I was glad that people like that took over the restaurant, where they still recognized Art, and they didn’t change anything. They left it the way Arthur really wanted it.”

Neighborhood hangout

Thirty-five-year-old Byron Shaw started working summers for Nichols at the restaurant last year. His mother’s family lives in Kitty Hawk, and Shaw says he can’t remember the town without Art’s Place.

“It’s just a neighborhood hangout,” Shaw says. “You always saw the familiar faces. The welcome mat was always out for whoever came to Art’s Place. … You always found good food and good company, and it’s just always been a staple.”

The walls offer a short course in Kitty Hawk history, from long before Glidden opened the place. A black-and-white photo of flood waters covering 1950s-era cars up to their wheel wells. A water spout menaces in a 1978 photo. Proud fishermen wield their trophies after a drum tournament. And Sammy Davis Jr., Liberace, Nat King Cole, Steve Lawrence, and Eydie Gorme smile in autographed pictures, wishing Glidden well.

Glidden offered Kitty Hawk more than a public living room. He and his place served as an emotional anchor in the seasonal, seaside community, where the whims of tourism and the capriciousness of the ocean pose a constant threat to stability.

His work as a philanthropist set the standard, as he helped to establish and run the Joy Fund, which raised thousands of dollars to help make Christmas dreams come true for hundreds of underprivileged families in the Outer Banks. His sister-in-law says his yen to help others was born of a difficult childhood spent in foster homes.

“He knew what it was like not to have a Christmas,” Debbie Glidden says. “He never wanted anybody to be in that situation, like he and his siblings were in.”

Glidden’s charitable efforts earned him the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of the highest honors the governor can bestow upon a North Carolina citizen.

“Art was a hero,” Nichols says. “He was a hero to me. He was very giving. He gave to the community in a huge way. … He totally earned that award because he did nothing but give.”

Local crowd

Glidden died at age 73 in August 2010. The family waited until the Saturday after Thanksgiving to hold the memorial service, when the tourist season was done and the summer residents cleared out for the winter. A group of friends scattered Glidden’s ashes on the beach across from his restaurant.

“I just wanted it to be intimate,” Debbie Glidden says. “I knew a lot of people who went to Art’s and knew Art was always there at Thanksgiving to close up their cottages.”

Nichols spends four or five days a week walking the floors that Glidden smoothed over the course of three decades. Among the few changes she made was extending the hours. Now Art’s Place serves dinner, where it was formerly just a breakfast and lunch spot.

“I’m there all the time,” she says.

When her children are home from college on breaks, they lend their hands, manning the grill or running food to the tables. And when her children are at school, Nichols can lean on her other loved ones, the regulars who show up at Art’s Place, day-in, day-out.

“They are a huge family,” she says. “It’s absolutely a local crowd.”

Eat

Art’s Place
4624 Virginia Dare Trail North
Kitty Hawk, N.C. 27949
(252) 261-3233
Hours: March-November, 7 a.m.-midnight or later, daily; December-February, 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m., daily.

Amber Nimocks, a freelance writer and editor in Raleigh, has written for The Washington Post, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Fodor’s travel guides.

This entry was posted in Coast, Dining, June 2011, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Art’s Place

  1. G. Eric Gaither says:

    GREETINGS,

    While no person can please all people, there was one that was entertaining as well educating.
    Art was one of those people that could please the masses that chatted him up as well were entertained by him, his bird and his MANY friends.
    Art’s Place will continue to support life long friends and attract new friends.

    TAMMY, WELL DONE!!

    CHEERS!!

  2. Art's Lover says:

    Every burger I have now are measured on the Art’s Scale (the 10). Closest yet, 8. Can’t forget the the cold, cold and cheap longnecks of Bud.

    God bless great joints like Art’s. God bless Art.

  3. Pingback: Amber Writes

  4. Old Native says:

    You know, Art’s used to be a great place, and maybe it still is, but all the “old locals” and new ones should remember that Art opened the place with another man, Bill Askew. This was a wonderful article which was well written and showcased a good history of a man I knew well, Art. Please, however, do not forget the fact that another man was always there with Art who was helping alongside to create a wonderful local hangout with spectacular food. The new owners, who are probably great people, seem to have taken away all notes and history of Mr. Askew. To all readers, go here and try the food, it might be wonderful. Do realize that there is a lot more to the history of Art’s Place than what the people there may say to you. Ask questions, find more out about the place that to me is a bittersweet memory when I see it.

  5. Mike Kelly says:

    As an Outer Banks Chamber Ambassador I was told about Art’s Place rating in Our State Magazine. Sine it was just 2 blocks from my house and I had never gone in I decided to give it a try.

    This was absolutely the best burger I’ve had on the Outer Banks! It has now become a favorite place to visit. Don’t let the look of the place fool you. It is perfect along the beach!

    I was so impressed I gave them a free web page that you can visit at:
    http://everythingouterbanks.com/artsplace/

  6. Jane Autler says:

    I believe that Our State Magazine has a responsibility to feature restaurants of high health standards. This dump has an 85.5 health grade from the State health inspector (out of 100) and it’s clear why as soon as you walk into the joint. The cook walks around the place with slices of cheese meant for burgers while he fiddles with the radio or some other equipment behind the bar. The owner washes bar glasses and then puts her fingers in them to put them on shelves. No gloves or other sanitary measures are taken to keep the food and preparation area clean. In addition to the pathetic heath inspection grade, the chairs were dirty with stuffing oozing out of them. Tables were greasy and unwashed. The owner complained the whole hour we were there about having to be there on her day off. She chastised the staff and threatened serious forthcoming “conversations” with them. While I realize the health inspection ratings can change from one health inspector visit to another, I find it hard to believe that free-lance writer Amber Nimocks could have found the place in significantly better shape regarding sanitation. Shame on Our State for neglecting to verify sources and confirm in its articles the health grading of restaurants it features. BTW, the hamburgers were mediocre at best and the word that best describes the ambiance of Art’s is dirty. Five Guys is a much better burger in a clean restaurant. We’ll not choose restaurants again based on Our State’s articles.

    • ourstate says:

      Dear Jane,

      Thank you for your comment. The experience you describe is very different than that had by the writer on her two visits to Art’s while reporting the story. As a seasoned food writer, Ms. Nimocks did not immediately identify herself as the writer of an Our State story in order to ensure an authentic dining experience, and the story accurately reflects her time there. We would not have run the story or intentionally misled our readers had she found it to be otherwise. At the time of the visits, the sanitation grade was an “A.” and the restaurant came recommended from several sources in Kitty Hawk. Ms. Nimocks wrote about her first-hand experience in the story. We are glad that our readers look to Our State as a trusted source of travel and dining information and we take seriously our role in sharing accurate information through the magazine.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Tracy Brown says:

    Had breakfast and lunch on occasion during vacations and what a wonderful place! The wife and I would get up early and sneak off for a quiet breakfast without the kids. Art was a great ambassador for the outerbanks and North Carolina.

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