Just outside of Warsaw, this Duplin County jewel combines signature wines, suits of armor, Scottish flair, Old World hospitality — and big-ol’ steaks.
For miles, N.C. Highway 24 offers little more than grain towers and hog houses — nothing to give the indication that it might lead you to a glass of pomegranate wine.
But just east of Warsaw, The Country Squire juts a friendly Scottish hand out of the pine forest and waves you into a log-and-mortar building that looks for all the world like Shakespeare’s birthplace.
Just inside the heavy, wooden door, a full-size knight in armor guards a barrel of apples, and you’re welcome to munch on one until you’re seated.
And then, while you’re noticing the Squire’s signature oddities — the servers in gingham pinafores, the candles dripping wax down the sides of wine bottles; or if you’re lucky, one of the resident ghosts — you can sip a glass of homemade wine, nicknamed, affectionately, Knicker Dropper.
“Be careful who you drink it with,” Loraine Smith, the owner’s daughter, warns as she pours a glass. “It’s guaranteed.”
On its 50th birthday, The Country Squire remains as delightfully out of place as it did in 1961, when a dreamy and determined local named Joseph A. West cut the timber and assembled the chimneys and mantelpieces from broken-down farmhouses.
Even the restaurant’s standing challenge remains mostly unchanged: Consume a 72-ounce steak, trimmings, dessert, and a glass of tomato juice in an hour, and it’s free.
The only difference is a slight Scottish flair added by the current owner Iris Lennon, whose family bought the Squire in 1993. These days, the titanic meal is called The Kilt Buster.
“Roman Gabriel ate it,” Lennon says, recalling a visit from the NFL and North Carolina State University quarterback from Wilmington.
Backward in time
You can get pretty decent barbecue a few miles west in Warsaw, likewise to the east in Kenansville.
But you’re not going to find many spots that still make a Caesar salad at your table, rubbing the wooden bowls with anchovy paste and garlic, cooking the raw egg yolk with nothing but the acid from a fresh-squeezed lemon.
Neither will you find many restaurants on the coast that still serve wine in small glasses filled to the brim rather than in fishbowls with a finger’s width of red at the bottom.
And you’ll have to drive across a few counties, not to mention a few decades, to get a steak garnished with a candied apple ring. Come on a festival day, and you’ll take your steak with kilts, bagpipes, and haggis.
“We have friends literally all over the world,” Lennon says. “Someone told me they were in an elevator in Hong Kong when somebody asked where they were from, and when he said, ‘Kenansville,’ they asked, ‘Have you ever heard of The Country Squire?’”
If you’re 16 in Beaulaville, smitten with the girl in your geometry class, this is the place to bring her and show that, some day, you’ll take her away from this small town and show her the world — at least the part of it that eats the whole sheep.
Standing for half a century along a two-lane beach highway, drawing in cars full of curious eaters, the Squire shows the value of being stubbornly different, of sticking fast to a wild idea.
“Kilt or no kilt, you’re welcome,” Lennon says. “We have folks coming in and say, ‘Gosh, I remember when my granny brought me here.’ We’ve got customers coming in now since they were 7 or 8.”
The story of the Squire starts with Joe West, a Duplin County boy who took his girlfriend to a local steak house as a teenager and felt let down by the white walls and bright lights inside.
On the next date, feeling cocky, he dragged a tablecloth out to Cliffs of the Neuse State Park and cooked their steaks over a hickory fire, baking potatoes on the ground.
Then, while serving in the United States Navy, he thought about the sound of the wood thrushes and the trickling Neuse, and he imagined what it would be like to run his own steak house where the atmosphere could be savored along with the filet mignon.
He took his inspiration from Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, fancying his eatery as a living version of Egdon Heath, a place where simple people subsisted on what they made themselves.
“Even though Duplin County is a poverty county, the people make the best of the land,” he told The News & Observer in Raleigh in 1968. “It’s remarkable what we can do with simple food.”
West got 23 acres of land, salvaged parts of old farmhouses, and cut timber with a gang of Duplin County men. The original log cabin Squire seated 76, opening in 1961.
Fifty years later, back in the winery, Smith shows off a portrait of the original waitstaff, crew-cut boys in string ties.
“That gentleman there, in the knickers,” she says. “He still works for us.”
Lennon and her family emigrated from Scotland in the early 1970s, following family to nearby Goldsboro. They were restaurant people even in Scotland, and they dropped their plans for life in New Zealand after a few weeks in rural North Carolina, embracing the Southerners they called Yanks.
News of the Squire floated up from Duplin County, and Lennon’s family flocked to jobs being offered there. For 35 years, Iris Lennon cooked, waited tables, tended bar, washed dishes, and cleaned toilets — before she and her family finally bought the place in 1993, not long after West died.
She and her family added the wine, much of it made with local grapes, and they added many new props, including three suits of armor. Otherwise, the Squire stayed untouched.
She feels obligated. Too many people come back after 10, 20, or even 30 years, looking for a slice from their pasts.
A memorable hearth
People all around this part of the state, the rural counties just inside the coast where the old saying is that the hogs nearly outnumber humans, remember the Squire as the scene of their prom night, or their wedding reception, or the night they wanted a meal that tried harder than a plate of barbecue.
If you eat there for the first time, you’re struck by how much the world has changed but somehow left the Squire untouched. What restaurant leaves an open candle burning on the table or prepares Caesar dressing with raw eggs? Surely, these are liabilities that a slicker restaurant with a cautious attorney would replace with electric lights and bottled sauce.
It’s common legend that the Squire is haunted — not by just one ghost, but a whole squadron of them. Glasses break. Shoulders get mysteriously tapped. Sometimes, the waitstaff hears singing in an empty room.
Lennon figures the ghosts are transplants. Most of the Squire has been added on in the last few decades, so it’s unlikely that the phantoms come from the same spot.
More likely they’re drawn by the sign along N.C. Highway 24, handpainted in red Old English font, and by the chance to haunt something more lively than a lonely farm road — a place as spirited as a glass of Knicker Dropper.
The Country Squire Restaurant and Vintage Inn
748 N.C. Highway 50
Warsaw, N.C. 28398
Josh Shaffer is an award-winning writer who works for The News & Observer in Raleigh. Josh’s most recent story for Our State was “Rusty Bucket Man” (August 2011).