Dilworth’s favorite hole-in-the-wall has (arguably) the best fries in town, the friendliest patrons and free live music, six nights a week.
By Page Leggett | Photographs by Justin Driscoll
It’s a sweltering Friday in August, and The Comet Grill is packed. There’s not a single available stool at the bar, and there’s just one empty table downstairs, which is where everyone wants to sit. It smells like the fryer has been working overtime, and it probably has. Patrons trying to hold conversations compete with Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” blaring from the speakers.
This is what many bars look and sound like during prime time. But it’s only 3 p.m., and The Comet has already come alive.
It’s going to get a lot more crowded in the 51-seat joint. Fridays are when The Lenny Federal Band — The Comet’s de facto house band — holds court. It’s had a standing gig here for 23 years — and not just because John Wicker, who founded The Comet with his wife, Jeanie, in 1996, plays in the band. Lenny Federal has a big and loyal following — and they’d get pretty loud if current Comet owner Tommy Noblett, 39, were to change this weekly ritual.
Regulars know there’s no way to predict what time the band might start, and they don’t much care. “The band’s nocturnal,” Noblett explains. The group might start playing anywhere between 9:30 and 11 p.m., though it’s been trying for the past year to stick to an earlier kickoff.
The place wasn’t designed to host live music, so it’s funny that music has become such a big part of The Comet’s mystique. “There is no stage,” Noblett says. “It’s a corner,” located just to the right of the front entrance. (There’s no dance floor, either, but that’s never stopped people from dancing.) “Live music is in your face as soon as you walk in the door,” Noblett says. “You’re either gonna love or hate it. If you’re open to having a good time, you’ll have one.”
That’s not just because of the music — it’s because of the regulars, he says. “You’re gonna get someone talking to you here,” Noblett says. “We’re a very social bar. My regulars are gonna make you feel welcome, regardless of your race, gender, creed or color. None of that matters.”
What matters is the music, and it’s playing six nights a week. Noblett, who books all the musicians himself, keeps Monday nights open. Having live music on Mondays would interfere with football, and his patrons, who he says are like family to him, consider that as sacred as Lenny Federal Fridays.
There’s never a cover charge at The Comet. Charging would be a logistical nightmare, Noblett says. “There’d be nowhere to collect money. That door opens about 1,200 times a day. There’s no room to have someone inside taking money, and no one wants to be outside when it’s 95 degrees or 30 degrees. I know there are things I could do — like charging a $2 tab for everyone. But John and Jeanie [Wicker] never charged for live music. It’s important to me to keep it free.”
The Lenny Federal Band, which includes Wendell Black, a fan who used to get up and sing an occasional song with the band and is now a full-fledged member, isn’t the only outfit with a standing gig. Red Rockin’ Chair has been playing bluegrass every Tuesday night at The Comet for a dozen years. They, too, pack the house. Wednesday is open mic night. On other nights, Noblett books local and regional acts that range from folk to jazz, reggae to rock, and occasionally, gospel.
Noblett practically grew up at The Comet. He started working there in 2000 when he was 19. He had a degree from Johnson & Wales University — then in Charleston, S.C. — and had moved to Charlotte to work at the downtown Hilton. “The restaurant manager brought me here one night,” Noblett recalls. “And I said, ‘What is this magical little hole-in-the-wall?’”
He picked up a part-time job at the hole-in-the-wall that had charmed him, and he has never left. He’s held every job, progressing from cook to bartender to running the kitchen to general manager. He bought the place in 2008 when the Wickers decided they were ready to sell. “There are a lot of people who come here who’ve seen my transition from a punk teenager into a business owner,” Noblett says.
Today, it seems Noblett was the obvious choice to take over the beloved institution, but at the time, he had a lot of doubt. “I never thought I’d be ready to own my own business at 27,” he says. “But I’d learned so much from John and Jeanie — I thought maybe I could give it a shot.”
He wrote a business proposal in December 2007. “I didn’t have any money,” he says. “I was just hoping at the time.” Actually, he was able to borrow money from a group he describes as “people I didn’t want to disappoint — aka, my family.”
He received encouragement from someone he considers an industry legend: Bud Nachman, owner of Belle Acres Country Club. (If you’re new to Charlotte, the “country club” bit is a joke: The South Blvd. private club offers a little putting green rather than an 18-hole course.) “Bud said, ‘Who gives a s*** if you fail? You’re young. You can do it again,” Noblett says.
By then, he had fallen in love with the place. “I couldn’t imagine it going into anyone else’s hands. I was scared a new owner would change it. I had no intention of changing anything John and Jeanie had created.”
Well, there were one or two things he would change. For starters, he upgraded the air conditioning. “Fifteen years ago, it was always hot as hell in here. It blew my mind how many people still came. We’d all be pouring sweat, but it was always a huge party.”
But for the most part, he’s not tinkered with a formula that’s worked since 1996. That includes not changing how the French fries are made. There’s an art to it, Noblett says. He prides himself on the consistency of Comet fries, which complement a menu of burgers, sandwiches and salads. Comet fries are freshly cut, always from Idaho potatoes. The raw potatoes sit in water — but “not for too long,” Noblett says. After cooking, they get a dash of salt, pepper and a proprietary seasoning blend. Keeping the fryer clean is essential, he says.
“We work hard to keep them always the same,” he says.
He’s talking about the fries, but he could just as easily be talking about The Comet Grill — a neighborhood dive that, much to the relief of its regulars, never seems to change. SP
Where everybody knows your name: It won’t take long to become a Comet regular — maybe just one visit. Find The Comet Grill tucked away in a corner of the shopping center at 2224 Park Rd. It’s open from 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. cometgrillcharlotte.com