The Charlotte Observer Local and State May 29, 2006

Can’t dock? Eatery will come get you

BY JOE MARUSAK

boatSHERRILLS FORD – When James Harrison steers his thatch-roofed pontoon boat onto Lake Norman, het trolls for boaters, not fish. And after the captain of the Pon-Tiki reels them in, he drops his catch at the Landing Restaurant & Tiki Bar in Sherrills Ford and motors back out to the lake for more. That’s how it works at Lake Norman’s only restaurant boasting water-taxi service.

“It’s cool,” said rider Michelle Brown, who went to the restaurant with co-workers one recent Saturday night. “We didn’t expect that. When they said no (boat) slips were available, we thought we’d have to go somewhere else. Then they told us we could anchor and they’d pick us up.”

Venturing onto the lake to pick up customers was the brainchild of a regular who realized it was the perfect solution to the problem of limited boat slips outside the restaurant.

Night after night in spring and summer, people sit bobbing in their boats waiting for their ride into the Genaro family’s 13-year-old restaurant. They gorge on ribs and wings and salmon, then motor back. In some cases, their spirits are high enough that the deck crowds with dancers boogying to Caribbean and beach music blaring.

“I’ll be in and out of this dock 60 times a night in the peak of summer,” Harrison said on a recent night, his tip jar filling with singles on 18 trips to boaters 200 yards out.

The Genaro’s bought the then-dilapidated restaurant and the 13-room Lake Norman Motel above it in the early 90’s. They fixed the restaurant’s 172 code violations and turned it into a favorite lake attraction that draws at least 1000 on weekend nights.

As the Lake Norman region is slowly covered over by high-end subdivisions and shopping centers, the brick Lake Norman Motel cuts a retro profile with its low-slung look that harkens back to the 50’s. It’s jammed with a lakey mix of folks who range from million-dollar homeowners to everyday families and college kids.

The Tiki boat solved a challenge vexing most lakeside restaurants: With only 22 boat slips they saw 10 or more boats turn around some nights.

Patron Bob “Sh-Bob” Gauthier kidded one evening that they needed a Tiki-style water taxi to match the Tiki restaurant theme. Everyone laughed, then realized he’d hit on something.

Halina Genaro couldn’t believe it two years ago when her sons dumped a decrepit, 24-foot pontoon boat in the motel’s side lot. There were holes in the deck and it had a blown engine. She thought it was ugly.

“It was like the African Queen,” she said. “I was waiting for Humphrey Bogart to step out.”

Her sons and Gauthier gave it new bench seating, carpet, ship rope railing, thatch made of grass from Mexico for the roof, a whiskey barrel for the helm and tip jar for the “captain.” Now folks like Alan Foxx of Sherrills Ford can tool in from the lake, board Pon-Tiki and head in for dinner.

“This is the only place you can bring your family and sit down next to a millionaire and you’re wearing the same swim wear or the same cut-off jeans, and nobody cares,” Foxx said.

Concord dentist Cliff Compton treated his all-female staff to meals and drinks in early May. When they reboarded Pon-Tiki several hours later and then Compton’s boat, several sang and danced and waved as Compton steered them back into the night.

About Lake Norman Motel
The 13-room brick motel has tree-canopied picnic tables outside and signs in the lobby you won’t find at Comfort Inn: “I’m too busy to be organized.”

Rooms are $50, but $55 for rooms with water views. Rooms have refrigerators and televisions but no phones. “Everyone has cell phones these days, anyways,” Halina Genaro said.

It catered mainly to fisherman when the Genaro’s bought it, and now to construction crews at Duke Energy Corp.’s Marshall power plant on NC 150, Charlotteans on weekend getaways and occasional stranded motorists like Bob Campbell, 50, of Greensboro. He spent 17 days after his car and boat trailer went off a road in a rainstorm and he waited weeks for a company to fix the trailer. “The first thing they did was give me food,” Campbell said of the Genaro’s.

Meet the Genaro’s
Founder Tony Genaro died of lung cancer at age 52 in January 2002. “He was gone in two months,” Halina Genaro said of her husband’s unexpected death. “He never even smoked. We had 30-some years together. What can you do?”

Halina Genaro runs the motel. She staffs the front desk and washes sheets. With son John’s fiancee, Anesia, she also cleans the rooms. Her homemade pizzas sell in the restaurant.

Halina’s mother-in-law, Millie, 78, makes the meatballs, which are covered in sauce and baked with mozzarella. She lives with Halina in Denver. Son Tony Genaro oversees the restaurant, greeting every customer with a smile. Son John Genaro is the “kitchen maestro,” high-fiving cooks throughout the night. Daughter Christina Genaro does “everything:” She cleans rooms, cooks, bartends, waitresses, and serves as a hostess. She has suffered a long crisis because she’s about to turn  30, but says she’s finally over it.

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