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The Dolson opens in downtown Charlotte this week. The restaurant’s interior design is based on the Dolson automobile, a brass era vehicle that was manufactured in the city in the early 20th century.
This week, the Lansing exurb of Charlotte unveils its biggest attraction yet in its effort to lure sidewalk shoppers and destination diners out of their urban comfort zones. Lansingarea foodies, meet the Dolson, a highconcept scratch restaurant opening Thursday in downtown Charlotte that’s equal parts historic preservation project, economic development tool and place to grab a burger and bourbon chocolate malt.
“This isn’t just a cool joint for Charlotte — this is comparable to what’s cool in Detroit, Grand Rapids and even Chicago,” said co-owner Jason Vanderstelt. “It’s an amazing building, an incredible menu and a prime example of the potential Charlotte wants to reach.”
Vanderstelt, 43, is one of the city’s biggest cheerleaders. He grew up in Charlotte, started his first company there at the age of 12 — a DJ company that’s still in operation today — and has served in a variety of city leadership positions. His latest role is lead marshal of the #CharlotteRising movement, aimed at reinvigorating the city both commercially and culturally. The Dolson is an offshoot of Dutch Brothers Development Group, a commercial and residential development company he cofounded with his brother, Darrell Vanderstelt.
“We knew if wanted to improve this community, we needed to find a restaurant property,” Vanderstelt said. “Restaurants are always vital to a downtown area’s resurgence. We figured, let’s capture the building and bring someone in to run the restaurant. Darrell and I aren’t restaurateurs; we’re just professional eaters.”
It didn’t take long for Vanderstelt to set his sights on the Potent Potables Project, the 4-year-old restaurant group made up of Al Hooper, Aaron Matthews and Sam Short. Potent Potables had breathed new life into Old Town’s dining scene with the one-two-three punch of Zoobie’s Old Town Tavern, the Cosmos and the Creole, and Vanderstelt hoped to bring some of that magic to his neck of the woods.
“Really, if you’re thinking about creative, inventive food in the Lansing area, (Potent Potables is) the first thing that pops into your head,” Vanderstelt said. “And working with them has been a dream.”
“To be honest, we really weren’t looking (to open a restaurant) in this area, but after meeting with Jason, I knew this would be a good fit for us,” Short said. “We’re always looking to push the boundaries of what dining can look and feel like, and this community was very receptive to our ideas.”
Darrell Vanderstelt oversaw the construction process, which included removing the plaster that had covered the brick walls for decades in the building’s last incarnation, the Gavel restaurant, which closed in December. For 32 years, it was owned and operated by Tom and Sheryl Hewitt, who sold the property for $305,000 last year. Vanderstelt estimates he and his team put about $1 million of work into the 3,200-square-foot space, including re-enclosing the restaurant’s original breezeway, which had been opened and used as an alleyway by the city. They also painted the exterior of the three-story building, but work on the other two floors was left to the future.
Short worked with chef George Sztroin to develop the menu’s “reenvisioned comfort classics,” including upscale takes on meatloaf, chicken pot pie and burgers. Other items include a vegetarian cauliflower “steak,” fried green tomatoes and slow-roasted barbecue ribs slathered in house-made barbecue sauce. Everything is made from scratch in-house, including the condiments. Specialty milkshakes — both with and without alcohol — will be given test runs on diners through the early summer before a final shake menu is eventually settled on. Similarly, a brunch menu is still in the works, to be unveiled in the coming months.
“If you want to throw a label, I’d call (the Dolson) a bedroom community gastro pub,” Short said. “We employ chefs, not cooks. But we also wanted to make sure we were still approachable. This is out-there stuff, but it’s still good, heartwarming, hand-crafted food.”
The signature cocktail menu was developed by assistant general manager Heather Haslacker and features four “models” named for Dolson styles, including the Model E 32HP, made with Espolon Reposado tequila, house-made jalapeno syrup, rosemary, cucumber and soda. Haslacker was named Best Bartender in last week’s Top of the Town contest for her drinkslinging skills at Zoobie’s.
Both the restaurant’s name and the themes in its décor are nods to the Dolson automobile, which was manufactured in Charlotte for four years in the early 1900s.
Short calls the theme “brass-era industrial,” a fusion of pre-Art Deco styles that evoke turn-of-the-lastcentury optimism. The lighting is all done with Edison bulbs, the bar area features white subway tile, and a diamond-tufted banquette stretches along the length of one wall beneath a massive mural of a Dolson. The only remaining Dolson car in existence was bought in 2012 by Charlotte resident Joe Pray, the fourth generation owner/ director of the nearby Pray Funeral Home.
“Joe brought it up and let me sit in it,” Vanderstelt gushed. “Hopefully he’ll bring it in again this Friday. It’s gorgeous, and he gave us some spare parts to use in our design. I think it’s perfect that this car that’s a symbol of Charlotte has become a major part of the city’s renewal.”
The Dolson (opens Thursday) 112 S. Cochran Ave., Charlotte 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday (517) 983-5264, thedolson.com
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