After a year of pop-ups, Chris Lopez and John Kleinert commit to a permanent location and a fun new menu
by Catherine Currin | photography by Bob Karp
You might be a member of the cult, anxiously awaiting the next dinner special to be posted on Instagram or refreshing your order page at 4:20 p.m. on a Wednesday. But even if you’re not, you might have heard of Fine Folk and wondered what the heck it was, with those crazy dishes like pickled Pimento cheese or a potato chip, lettuce, and tomato sandwich that have been popping up all over town over the past year.
So for the uninitiated: Fine Folk is the brainchild of chefs Chris Lopez and John Kleinert. It’s the name of the pop-up food concept with a loyal following that’s sustained them through the pandemic. And after much anticipation, it’s the name of their restaurant, which is opening this fall in Gateway Plaza.
Lopez and Kleinert are longtime players in the Triangle hospitality industry — the two have been cooking in kitchens since their teenage years. Owner and executive chef Lopez helped Sunny Gerhart open St. Roch on S. Wilmington Street. Kleinert spent some time on Ashley Christensen’s culinary team at her chicken joint, Beasley’s.
But the two met when they served as executive and sous chefs at downtown Cary’s Postmaster Restaurant and Bar, a minimalist eatery that, until last year, featured elevated, seasonal dishes.
When COVID-19 caused the food industry to pivot, Lopez and his team got the go-ahead from the owners of Postmaster to reinvent the restaurant as Gov’t Cheeseburger — a more casual, takeout-only option, operating out of the same space. Gov’t Cheeseburger caught on quickly and soon the team was selling 50 burgers an hour. “It was kind of an on-the-fly concept that has just worked,” says Lopez.
Over time, the owners decided not to reopen Postmaster, so Kleinert and Lopez pivoted once again and dreamed up Fine Folk: a mashup of their creativity initially in pop-up form, to gain momentum as a brand with hopes of a permanent space in the future. Lopez says the name is a riff on Gov’t Cheeseburger’s tagline: “A temporary pop-up from the fine folk at Postmaster.”
They started by setting up shop in Foundation bar a few nights a week, slinging burgers, sour cream-and-onion flavored fries, and tater tot tacos. After a few months, they moved over to a steady Wednesday through Saturday residence at Union Special, which has an open kitchen in the evenings.
The two say that Fine Folk is a happy marriage of Postmaster’s and Gov’t Cheeseburger’s style. In their new, permanent location next to Union Special, in the former BREW spot in Gateway Plaza, Fine Folk will serve both lunch and dinner, with weekly features plus a full bar menu.
Fine Folk will incorporate its quirky sense of humor throughout the space — think, a hotel ice bucket for your bottle of wine — and even on the menu, but the food is no joke. Kleinert says they’re excited to have a location where he can flex his creative muscles. “We’ve been toying around with a lot of ideas that you can’t necessarily put in a to-go format,” he says.
There will be steak features, unique pasta creations, and a plated version of their popular roast chicken, and wine will be the anchor of the beverage program. “We want it to feel inviting and approachable,” says Lopez. “We want this to be a space you can come to three times a week, but also for a special occasion.”
“This is going to be a take on the chain restaurants that you went to growing up,” Lopez says. You can order a Caesar Wedge (made with romaine, not iceberg), Chicken & Rice (done Cuban-style, with peppers, onions, and garlic and adobo seasoning), and Fish & Grits, their Southern take on fish & chips with North Carolina Trout.
The goal was to fill the menu with great versions of classic American favorites that feel like home. “When we say spaghetti night,” Lopez says, “it might be something you see on the menu at an Italian chain restaurant, but using homemade pasta.”
Fine Folk will tap their neighbors at Union Special for all bread products in the restaurant — Kleinert’s favorite is a homemade rendition on the freezer aisle’s Texas Toast, made from Union Special’s Parker House rolls, but baked on a square pan. Andrew Ullom, owner of Union Special and a partner in Fine Folk, says he can’t wait to have the duo as neighbors (Lopez’s wife, Maria Luna, is also head baker at Union Special).
“I’m excited for a rad neighbor and fun synergy between concepts and food,” says Ullom. “Chris’ range is so huge — he’s ready to elevate the food and show off what they’re going to be doing on a daily basis.”
Two other important aspects of Fine Folk, Lopez says, are providing a living wage for staff and making the price points accessible to guests. Opening their restaurant in a growing neighborhood without an established food scene allows them to fill a gap, Lopez says: “We hope to have a space that’s a new go-to for the city of Raleigh.”
This story originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of WALTER magazine.