Restaurateur uncovers piece of history

Published 9:34 pm Monday, July 30, 2012

Harper Bradshaw worked for a year to design the layout of his new restaurant, so it’s understandable that he had a range of emotions when a previously undiscovered feature of the building required a change of plans.

“At first, I was really excited,” he said. “But then it was, ‘Oh, no. We didn’t plan for this.’”

Even so, he said, there was “no way” the Coca-Cola mural, believed to be more than a century old, wouldn’t be used as the centerpiece of Harper’s Table, a new restaurant on North Main Street that opens this week.

Harper Bradshaw, his wife Laura, and their children, Connor, 8, and Taylor, 3, stand in front of a century-old mural in Harper’s Table, the new restaurant they own on North Main Street.

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Bradshaw has worked for more than a year to get the restaurant open, ever since he left Vintage Tavern last July. But when he was taking wood paneling off the northern wall of the restaurant to expose the brick along part of the wall, he uncovered much more than he bargained for.

There on the wall was a beautifully preserved mural encouraging consumers to buy Coca-Cola at “all soda fountains” for five cents. According to the credit at the bottom, it was painted by The Gunning Systems, an outdoor advertising company that merged with another company around the beginning of the 20th century.

The mural was painted on what was then an exterior wall of the building next door. Bradshaw said he hasn’t been able to find out much about it. Nobody can remember ever seeing it, though some diners at private events Bradshaw hosted for family and friends last weekend recalled when a soda cost five cents.

He went to the library hoping to find pictures of the building with the mural, but without luck. He knows only that the mural is more than a century old because of finding out details of the Gunning Systems merger.

If it weren’t for Bradshaw’s drive to use reclaimed materials throughout the entire building, he might never have found it.

The wood that covered the mural now forms the ceilings in the restrooms. The shelf behind the bar is a restored support beam from the front of the building. The chairs are made from old kegs and reclaimed steel, and many of the countertops in the building are reclaimed steel.

The canopy over the dining area was taken from the old Suffolk Peanut Company warehouse. The booths are made of ambrosia maple from Surry County.

“There’s a lot of sustainable and reclaimed stuff,” he said.

Bradshaw has always wanted to have his own restaurant. His philosophy is, “If you cook great food and take really great care of your guests, you’re going to make a living,” he said.

He aims to source as much of his fare from local sources as possible. Most of the seafood will come straight from local rivers, the Chesapeake Bay and the mid-Atlantic, he said. Vegetables will come from the farmers’ market.

“Where possible, we use things from the soil close to the restaurant,” he said.

That means the menu is always changing with what’s in season at that exact moment.

“Just because this is the menu today doesn’t mean you’ll be able to find that stuff tomorrow,” he said. “It keeps everything fresh and exciting.”

The restaurant will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays for dinner, and lunch times could be added down the road, Bradshaw said. But he cautioned that reservations for this Tuesday are already full.

“We’re just really excited about being a new part of the community,” he said.