Nearing 20 years in business, Bentley’s offers a fine-dining alternative to the turn-and-burn style of restaurants today.
by Ebony L. Morman | photographs by Amy Kolo
Jim Emad didn’t set out to be a restaurateur when he arrived in Charlotte in the late 1970s to attend UNC Charlotte. While studying mechanical engineering, the Persia native helped out a friend at the French-inspired La Tache at the Registry Inn on Woodlawn Road. He quickly realized he had a knack for hospitality, and within six months, he was promoted to manager.
Now, more than 40 years later, Emad is on the cusp of celebrating 20 years as founder and owner of Bentley’s, a French-inspired fine-dining restaurant in Piedmont Town Center. Since 2004, Emad — along with the support of his wife, Kay Emad, whose maiden name is Bentley — has been at the helm, sharing his affinity for French cuisine with patrons at the dinner-only restaurant.
At Bentley’s, guests are encouraged to sit, enjoy and stay for hours. One distinctive detail is the tableside service, where skilled waiters carve steaks, debone fish and flambé desserts on mobile cooking carts. Tableside preparation was popular in the U.S. until the 1970s and ’80s.
“I love tableside — it’s an old art and something no one else does,” Emad says. The restaurant is designed for it, with tables spread out to ensure privacy and space for the cooking carts. “It’s about the dining experience rather than just going to have something to eat,” Emad says.
When visitors enter Bentley’s, which relocated from uptown to SouthPark in 2019, there’s a good chance they’ll meet Emad, who enjoys engaging with guests. Before Bentley’s, he spent 18 years at the Fish Market, a fine-dining seafood restaurant in SouthPark, and five years at LaVecchia’s Seafood Grille in uptown, where he was general manager.
“We try to give visitors the best quality and the best service with a great price — that’s been our model,” he says. “We don’t want to rush people, we want them to enjoy themselves.”
That aversion to the turn-and-burn culture that most diners experience nowadays is one of the key reasons for Bentley’s success, Emad says, along with consistency and commitment to the customer experience.
“The restaurant industry is something you have to love, or you shouldn’t get into it,” he says. “You have to be consistent with your food, quality and service. That’s why I’m here every day, working the floor, greeting customers and helping my staff.”
With 18 appetizers, 18 entrees, several specialty dishes, and tableside desserts such as bananas Foster and crepes Suzette, there’s something for every palate. Emad, who helps Executive Chef Moises Bollo develop new menu items, goes to great lengths to get the best ingredients, including fresh sea bass overnighted from Hawaii along with East Coast snapper, grouper and halibut.
Dover sole is pan-seared in the kitchen, then filleted at the table and served with a lemon caper sauce. “It’s a delicacy,” Emad says. “It’s the best mild whitefish in the world.” There’s also the Chateaubriand for two. The tender steak is flambéed tableside, carved at the table and served with potato dauphinoise, wild mushrooms, grilled asparagus and a red-wine reduction.
Over the years, Emad has witnessed many changes in the restaurant industry. Recently, price increases along with staffing and product shortages have been particularly challenging. His fix is to conduct research and buy as much as he can, when he can. For example, when a local supplier of the restaurant’s preferred pasta discontinued it, he found the pasta in Los Angeles and purchased enough to last.
Even the transition to SouthPark wasn’t without challenges. The reopening was postponed due to the pandemic, but Emad and his team persevered, knowing the new location was closer to their customers and more accessible than the former uptown spot.
Despite the hurdles, Emad finds joy daily in ensuring that each time people visit, they get a unique and quality experience. “My favorite part is meeting new customers and taking care of them,” he says.
After more than four decades in the business and in the Queen City, he’s learned an important lesson: Stay on top of your game. “Charlotte has been great for me,” Emad says. “People are friendlier than other cities. It’s growing, and it’s a good place to call home.” SP