Live Oak Café
Casual fine dining, not just for special occasions
BY: REBECCA JONES
PHOTOS: ANNE McGOWAN
Live Oak Cafe is located in Southport. It is on the left driving into town, the third of the “three sister houses” on Howe Street. Some say, the houses are called the three sisters because they are identical, others say they were built for three sisters- the actual date is unclear, anywhere from 1890-1919, explains owner and Head Chef, Sean Mundy. Mundy and his wife Jennifer Charron purchased the property Thanksgiving of 2001, and for the next several months, until opening the doors in July of 2002, the renovation and restoration of what was to become the Live Oak Cafe was a full time job. The front of the house became, to use restaurant lingo, “the front of the house” the foyer became the “lobby” and the three rooms became the dining rooms. The biggest being the blue room which can seat 18. The back of the house, which had been added on to three separate times, became the kitchen, prep and storage area. A screened-in porch, with handicap access was added as was a wine garden area for guests; all graced by the presence of the restaurant’s majestic namesake, the large live oak tree, estimated to be between 400 to 500 years old.
“This is where my degree came in,” Mundy explains, regarding the transformation of the old house into a restaurant. Mundy is a NC State graduate with a degree in civil engineering and construction, “which helped when it came to the restaurant, drawing up plans and having a working knowledge.” Jennifer, a Carolina graduate, with a degree in English and Art History, researched period pieces for the restaurant. Even the paint colors are registered historical colors of the Victorian period; brick red, colonial blue, mustard yellow and warm orange, setting off the bead board ceiling and the original pine floors. The art along the walls are reprints of famous artists, all with a food theme, there’s a Dahli, “Bread Loaf” and a Picasso, “Fruit Dish”. The tables and furniture are all period pieces. An antique “knockdown” dresser, which, “is designed to come apart for people traveling across country in wagons,” explains Sean, has been repurposed as a wine cabinet. “The tables are Old English pub tables that can extend” explains Mundy, giving seating flexibility in small spaces, which is useful for business meetings, corporate events, receptions, and rehearsal dinners. “It really has been a labor of love,” acknowledges Mundy; love that has extended to other family members. For example, Sean’s parent’s antique settee is in the lobby, also a Victorian scene of a couple walking down a lane, comprised of penned dots, belonging to Jennifer’s family hangs above the mantle over what used to be the fireplace and even Sean’s Grandmother contributed by making yarn doilies for the glassware.
Sean and Jennifer met working in a restaurant and “I’ve been working in restaurants ever since. I didn’t go to culinary school, but I’ve worked with different chefs, read lots of books, researched and experimented”, says Sean. He describes the menu of the Live Oak Cafe as, “classic creole, which to me, means true French cooking, so a Creole influence with Southern-Low country and Pacific Rim all with a spin.”
Together, with a small staff and Sous Chef, Billy Christenberry who has been with the Live Oak Cafe for ten years, the menu evolves and changes with the seasons. “When it’s possible, I source NC products based on availability; quality meats, steaks, and produce, “In the summer, “lots of local seafood off the coast of NC; trigger, grouper, wahoo,” says Mundy. Off season, “I love cooking game. In the fall, big hearty meals; ostrich, venison, elk from central North Carolina and buffalo outsourced from Asheville.”
The Live Oak Cafe also has an extensive wine selection to pair with the menu. This year Mundy is bringing in more Italian, Spanish and French wines. Desserts are made in house, featuring, crème brûlée, pecan pie, bread pudding, peach crisp and this fall, apple crisps, along with homemade chocolate cakes brought in from The Confectionary.
During the off season the Live Oak Cafe will feature a themed night once a month on a Monday thru March. This is a chance “for me to get creative,” says Mundy, “Pairing the wines to the menu, we might do a Greek theme with food and Greek wine, or a Mediterranean theme with wines from Spain and Italy.”
In addition to the once a month Monday themed nights, the Live Oak Cafe is known for its annual Mardi Gras celebration. The weekend before Fat Tuesday the restaurant is festive, dressed up with beads and masks. The menu consists of creole dishes such as crawfish étouffée, red beans and rice, known as the Wash Day meal, blackened fish fried appetizers and the classic Mardi Gras dessert: Banana’s Foster. The Live Oak Cafe also does its own take on St. Paddy’s Day with smoked trout dip and traditional Shepherd’s Pie.
This October, the weekend of the King Mackerel Contest, October 2nd, the Live Oak Cafe is hosting an Octoberfest, featuring German beers and German cuisine like Jäger schnitzel and authentic Laugen Bavarian Pretzels from Munich.
The Live Oak Cafe serves dinner 5pm – until, and is closed Sunday and Monday with the exception of the Monday theme nights. Look for dates and themes on the website: www.liveoakcafenc.com.
The restaurant is small, so reservations are recommended but not required.