Billy Tart sees his Brass Lantern Steak House as a family business in the broadest sense. He and his wife, Vickie, opened the restaurant in 1992 to bring fine dining to Dunn’s east side. They built their home a half-mile away, and their daughters, Ashley and Amanda, grew up working at the Brass Lantern.
“It was our normal,” Amanda says. “I didn’t play dolls as much as cash registers.”
Through the years, the Dunn restaurant’s family has broadened to include regulars from Harnett and nearby Johnston, Sampson, and Cumberland counties. Customers depend on the Brass Lantern for birthday parties, class reunions, date nights, and wedding celebrations. Coaches from Campbell University take recruiting prospects there for a taste of the restaurant’s community atmosphere. Dunn’s city government has held retirement parties at the Brass Lantern, and the Chamber of Commerce often meets there. And when Ashley and her fiancé planned their wedding-rehearsal dinner, of course they chose the Brass Lantern.
Even long-distance travelers on Interstate 95 have become familiar faces, timing their trips to take Exit 72 at the dinner hour. One family with relatives in Virginia and South Carolina always meets in the middle — at the Brass Lantern — for reunions.
Once inside, diners find a cozy scene: dining rooms with tables set in burgundy or brown, topped with white tablecloths and accented with chairs upholstered in plaid.
Some travelers roll in with apologies for their casual attire — no problem, the Tarts tell them — and soon they face not endless miles of asphalt, but a cutting board of warm bread and whipped butter, followed by loaded platters of fried shrimp and scallops, barbecued chicken, pork ribs, or the restaurant’s signature prime rib.
The tight-knit staff uses insider names for the five dining rooms — including “Egypt” for the room farthest from the kitchen and “Manhattan” for the one with the 12-by-8-foot photo mural of New York’s skyline. One even pays homage to the man who misheard the restaurant’s name as “Brown Flounder.”
“It was a dream to open a steakhouse,” says Billy, who monitors the Brass Lantern’s evening flow while roving from kitchen to dining rooms to front desk and back, wearing a crisp white shirt and a modest smile. “I wouldn’t consider myself a chef, but I know what good food is, and I expect it.”
He knows what family is, too. In a pinch, he calls former employees back in to help — and, like good relatives, they show up.
“I’m very blessed with a lot of good employees,” Billy says. “Once we get them and they stay, they’re part of the family. It’s all working together.”
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.