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Downtown Charm:

Renée’s CourtHouse Caffé
720 Court Street • (910) 455-6141
Breakfast and Lunch
Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; 5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.

CAFFE-CLASSICS: Renée’s CourtHouse Caffé in Jacksonville has become a local hot spot for juicy classics like their Binder (above; Philly cheesesteak) and The Deputy Sheriff (below; Reuben) for lunch, or dinner time favorites such as barbecued salmon (above) and cheese ravioli (below). Photos by Shea Carver

Though encore only arrived in Jacksonville in August, the meetings we’ve gained with locals and business owners alike, along with many creative types, has been overwhelmingly positive. Just last month as we sat down for a lunch bunch with Connie Wenner, executive director of the Jacksonville Council for the Arts, and local author and poet Sandra Ervin Adams, we were immersed in much of the town’s history.

“When I was growing up, downtown was full of independent shops,” Adams recollected. “I used to go to Roses’s Dime Store; it was always my favorite as a little girl. Back then, downtown was full of wonderful shops.”

After many of the mom-and-pop businesses moved away from the historic streets, lawyers, bail bondsmen and the city jail moved in. Yet, glimmers of mercantile hope are coming back, particularly with Renée’s CourtHouse Caffé, owned and operated by Renée Worthington.

The CourtHouse Caffé’s building is indicative of much of downtown’s history. Owned by the local Edwards family, its patriarch ran a restaurant called Deweys back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. It’s been many things since, including a gentleman’s club in the early 2000s. In 2006, Worthington opened up the two side-by-side portions of the building to make it one large dining facility.

Inspired by the Onslow County Court House, located literally across the street, the eatery has since become a hangout for deputies, lawyers, judges and police officers. However, Worthington’s attention to homemade food means folks from all over the city traverse to its cozy tables at 720 Court Street. As the lunch bunch arrived, we immediately understood why the restaurant’s reputation was highly regarded. From their tasteful and juicy Reuben—called appropriately “The Deputy Sherriff”—to their cream roasted butternut squash soup, everything smelled enticingly fresh.

“We don’t do anything fried,” Worthington said, making the exception for every sandwich-shop staple: French fries. “There’s no way getting away from that,” she noted, “but I give my customers a healthier menu from the start.”

A kitchen manager on Camp Lejeune for three years and a sous chef prior to that, Worthington didn’t like the industrialized setting and the restrictive creative room these culinary jobs provided. Three months later, she found herself on the historic side of downtown Jacksonville. A restaurant built on the desire to educate, Worthington transformed her love of food into dedicating her restaurant to wholesome goodness. Today, she offers cooking classes for only $25 a person, and she especially hopes diners will be open and honest with their needs. Thus, she serves sugar-free, soy-free and gluten-free items.

“I don’t want my customers to be afraid to ask for something; just like in school, the only dumb question is the question you don’t ask,” she explained. “If you see tomatoes on a menu, but want something else, just ask me. Your request is not an inconvenience.”

Worthington’s tone dictates her genuine willingness to serve. Her primary goal is to make every customer happy who comes through the café doors, which is why the restaurant caters to multiple types. From boxed lunches—which includes drink, sandwich, pickle and something sweet to finish off the meal—or a soup and salad buffet for only $5.99 for lunch, to a more intimate dinner spot, to full catering on and off the premises, the cafe can meet anyone’s food needs.

As their signature item, the Deputy Sherriff, arrived at our table, the aroma of sauerkraut and rye bread wafted through the air. With its homemade Thousand Island dressing, it provided enough tang to balance the marbled fat of the corned beef, which the café makes on site.

“We don’t buy anything precooked,” Worthington said. “From turkey to corned beef to all of our desserts, everything is home made. Sure, I could save money if I took out my burners and instead bought fryers, but, at the end of the day, fried food is cheap.”

The café’s Binder, a Philadelphia cheesesteak, came on the traditional Amoroso roll—indicative of the famed baking company which help set the sandwich apart from other steak sandwiches. Cut into a pocket to house a monstrous mound of onions and mushrooms, the meat stayed perfectly on its hinges and offered a nice texture of melted, gooey Provolone cheese with the soft, delicate crumb of the bread matched with its outer-crust crunch. The steak was shaved thinly but never lost its moisture.

The seasonal butternut squash soup arrived pureed with chicken stock, thyme, rosemary and savory herbs. The earthy soup bountifully tickled our palates, as the sugary apples took on a savor with the addition of cream.

The café does dinner as well. Though they offer a standard barbecued salmon, it isn’t without a punch of flavor worth tasting. Worthington uses wild salmon, grilled to perfection, sans any fishiness that salmon sometimes carries. Instead, it had a rich flavor, buttery and smoky with the barbecue sauce, paired with crisp asparagus and roasted red potatoes.

The stuffed ravioli plumply rises with pouches filled with cheese and topped with pesto cream and more Romano cheese. Though its richness may sound too much, it isn’t as heavy as one would expect. Topped with fresh basil and garlic, it satisfied without leaving us with hungover weighty stomachs.

Aside from the fact that Worthington serves Jacksonville a nice slice of homey fare among a sea of chain restaurants, she also continues forward with her civic duties to betterment of our community. She works tirelessly in helping promote city and county events such as the recent Halloween happening, Haunted Downtown.

A restaurant worth the drive to historic downtown, Renée’s CourtHouse Caffé may play up its theme with menu sections called “Opening Statements” for appetizers, “Class Actions” for signatures and “Cross Exam” for sandwiches. Overall, though, they should be called “Citizen Brigade,” as everyone is sure to enjoy their local fare with local care. Join the café on Thanksgiving for brunch, served from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations are recommended.

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