From left: Charles Winston Jr. and Wil O’Neal | Photo Credit: Pam Varela

Winston’s Grille Co-Owners Named NCRLA Restaurateurs of the Year

In April 2021, Eat by Melissa Wistehuff1 Comment

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No matter what hot new eatery descends on DTR, North Raleigh’s Winston’s Grille has stood the test of time—earning its third NCRLA Stars of the
Industry Award.

When you think of restaurant buzz, you always think of the new shiny toy so to speak—the hottest new resto or chef or location to hit town. And, lucky for that appetite, Raleigh’s got them in spades. But while we clamor at all the James Beard nods and cool eats and digs we can get, it’s not the up-and-comer that’s turning heads for the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association’s annual awards.

Nope. This year’s NCRLA Stars of the Industry Award for restaurateur of the year lands squarely in the laps of the duo behind Winston’s Grille—our steady standby. Somehow, despite sitting at a busy, awkward North Raleigh intersection—and in the face of every new top chef who comes to town or inspired menu that drops—this city staple has managed to stand head and shoulders above the rest. It’s not just any award, but the NCRLA’s top honor.

There are only a handful of Raleigh restaurants that have been around as long as Winston’s Grille. Opened in 1986 by Charles Winston Jr. and Wil O’Neal, the mainstay has become a Raleigh tradition for date night, family meals, business luncheons and dinners—even as a hot spot post hitting the links at nearby North Ridge Country Club—and everything in between.
“We are very flattered to be given this award; we’ve been at this for a long time,” Winston says, humbly. “I guess if you do something long enough, you might get lucky like we have.”

This Stars of the Industry Award marks the third consecutive for Winston’s Grille. Longtime manager Roger Carter, who started at the restaurant as a bartender decades ago, was named 2020’s restaurant manager of the year, and Philip Gomes was named 2019’s NC restaurant employee of the year.
Beyond the awards, the sheer loyalty of the resto’s staff (think of how many service industry folks you know who stay loyal to one place for years, much less decades—hey, um, maybe never?) speaks to what Winston and O’Neal have created.

Perhaps it’s a nod to a shared vision and true expertise. Winston, who comes from a long legacy of hospitality service (his father, Charles Winston Sr. was the original co-owner of the Angus Barn), and O’Neal have known each other their whole lives. Their parents were good friends, and Winston says O’Neal was always around his house growing up. “Our family considered him my parents’ third son,” Winston says. The pair became partners when O’Neal was managing one of Winston’s father’s restaurants in Greenville.

The two agree that the secret to longevity in the restaurant industry is having a good partner. “The restaurant business brings a lot of ups and downs,” says Winston. Seconds O’Neal: “We’ve always worked as a team with a foundation made of friendship. We’ve helped carry each other along the way.”

Winston adds that his father’s mentorship, especially in the beginning, was priceless, and the advice he imparted on them has been invaluable. Although his dad passed away earlier this year, Winston says his namesake will continue to influence him both personally and professionally.

… And let’s not ignore the gigantic elephant in the room. This top honor is being dished during a pandemic—when many are struggling to merely survive. Despite being forced to close Winston’s Grille for nearly three months (alongside every other resto in town), the restaurateurs survived and, obviously, thrived.

While making plans to reopen safely and keep patrons satiated, Winston and O’Neal continued to pay and provide benefits for their nearly 100 employees—a perk almost unheard of in the restaurant business. “Most of our employees have been with us for decades—some for 30 years—and we knew we had to take care of them,” Winston says.

Meanwhile, the co-owners adjusted Winston’s business model to utilize its large outdoor space upon reopening in June 2020. Anticipating that guests would prefer to sit outside, the co-owners invested in heaters for its token wraparound covered patio. “Heating an outdoor space as big as ours was a challenge, but it was well worth it,” says O’Neal. “The customers loved it, even throughout the cold, wet winter months, so it has been a great asset.”

Considering the average restaurant in America closes within 10 years—a statistic only exacerbated by the devastating year the pandemic dealt the industry—it is quite remarkable that Winston’s Grille has not only remained a Raleigh fave for patrons for 35 years, but continues to turn industry heads and receive top honors.

The savvy duo’s advice to restaurateurs wanting to open a spot of their own? “Take care of your people—both employees and customers,” says O’Neal. “If you do that, they’ll always come back.”

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