Windows on the Square

She grew up dining at buffet-style chain eateries. Then, by pairing Manhattan flavors with a generous pouring of small-town neighborliness, Inez Holderness Ribustello ’98 found a culinary home.

 by Lucy Hood ’83

It’s nighttime at On the Square Restaurant and Wine Store, and local patrons mix with other diners who have driven hours to get here for the lobster and avocado salad, wild mushroom ravioli and sliced wagyu strip steak. And for wine pairings personally selected by Inez Holderness Ribustello ’98.

For tonight, Ribustello has come up with three wine options for the steak, served with truffled macaroni and cheese and a red-wine reduction. There’s the Vinaceous Red Right Hand, “peppery, full-bodied and ripe like blackberries, and it tends to go really well with a big old piece of rare, fatty steak,” Ribustello explains. The Chave Mon Coeur “is like putting pepper on your steak,” and the Bacchus Cabernet Sauvignon — “not a massive, can-of-fruit bomb, but it’s got good body” — is the wine store’s top-seller.

Ribustello’s unusual expertise for pairing gourmet food with fine wines was acquired under the tutelage of some of the world’s top culinary experts in New York and the vineyards of Europe. But she’s not matching this food and drink in a Manhattan hot spot 
or a Paris bistro.

She is in her hometown — Tarboro, N.C.

More than out-of-town diners find their way to this eastern North Carolina colonial river town of about 11,000. For years, the inventory of more than 500 wines at this luncheonette-turned-upscale-restaurant has drawn raves from Wine Spectator. It’s the food and the wine — and On the Square’s hosts and co-owners, Inez and her husband, Stephen Ribustello — that draw diners back again and again.

The wine store

The wine store has played an integral part in the success of On the Square, with a vast inventory that gets noted often in Wine Spectator magazine. (Photos by Bill Goode Photography)

Petit filet mignon

Petit filet mignon with Domaine Dujac Morey Saint Denis from Cote de Nuits, France, the winery where the couple worked the harvest in 2002.

Carrot cake

Carrot cake with Klein Constantia Vin de Constance from South Africa.

On this night, a crowd of 70 patrons has gathered to celebrate the restaurant’s 12th anniversary and its fusion of an elegant, New York-style dining experience with the kind of warm welcome and sense of familiarity that one would expect to find in the homes of family and friends.

Much of that ambience is attributable to Inez Ribustello’s knack for getting to know everyone who walks in the door and greeting them by name when they come back. “She has such a gift for making you feel like you’re the only person in the room,” said Shari Redhage, a longtime family friend whose three children have worked at On the Square.

At the anniversary celebration, 
Ribustello thanked her guests for their support, her staff for their hard work and everyone in the room for helping out in myriad unexpected ways, from bringing bags of basil and mint to offering free babysitting and fixing the swinging door, the bathrooms, the HVAC system and the roof.

“Thank you all with everything I have,” she said.

Those words — “with everything I have” — sum up Ribustello’s approach to everything: her friends, family and ever-expanding culinary enterprise, which in addition to the restaurant includes a catering business, a food truck and the soon-to-be Tarboro Brewing Co.

The same words sum up her approach to everything that came before, all the twists and turns that led her from this easy-to-overlook town on U.S. 64 to New York — and back.

An epicurean epiphany

Ribustello, who grew up where dining out at chain steakhouses was the height of cuisine, showed up on UNC’s campus her freshman year intending to be the next Katie Couric. Along the way, she discovered an affinity for cooking, specifically the alchemy of altering the taste of a dish with a little of this or a bit of that.

She also discovered wine.

A bottle of Washington state chardonnay from Chateau Ste. Michelle delivered an epiphany in her burgeoning appreciation of good food and drink. “It was like nothing I’d ever tasted,” she said. “It was buttery and toasty and really, really good.”

With the ink barely dry on her diploma from UNC, where she majored in journalism and mass communication, Ribustello moved to New York in summer 1998 intent on becoming a professional chef. During the day, she took classes at what is now the Institute of Culinary Education, and in the evening, she worked at Best Cellars, a wine store where each bottle cost less than $10.

Inez Ribustello in the wine shop.

Inez Ribustello looks over selections in the wine shop. (Bill Goode Photography)

“The whole idea was to drink great wine at affordable prices,” Ribustello said. “Everyone who walked into the store could taste the wine of the day, and that was my favorite part of the job, when I could stand behind the podium and talk about the wine and tell people where it was found, how it was made, what it tasted like and what I liked to eat with it.”

The former high school cheerleader, once on a path to become a broadcaster, had found a different platform to showcase her knack for telling stories and her wealth of knowledge behind those stories.

From Best Cellars, Ribustello went to work at Windows on the World atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center, which offered a vast wine selection overseen by renowned wine steward and educator Kevin Zraly and an international cuisine once described as “the best food-with-a-view” in the U.S.

Ribustello started out as an assistant cellar master, an entry-level position that, as she described it, consisted largely of moving boxes. She immersed herself in wine classes and by the latter part of 2000, she had worked her way up to beverage director, overseeing all wine, beer and liquor served at the two restaurants and bar under the Windows on the World umbrella.

The multilevel dining complex employed 450 people, including Ribustello’s future husband and dining room sommelier, Stephen. The duo reveled in the big-city night life and all that their jobs had to offer, including access to fine wines and great food. They were personally and professionally on top of the world.

Then came the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Inez had just attended her sister’s wedding in Tarboro and was still in North Carolina. Stephen was supposed to teach an 11 a.m. wine class that day but had not yet gone to work. He woke up to find 27 messages on his answering machine, looked out his apartment window and saw nothing but smoke where the towers had been: 
“It was surreal.”

Seventy-nine of their colleagues at Windows on the World were at work that morning; none survived.

“Everything was so blurry,” Inez said of the weeks that followed. “I got a job as beverage director at a new restaurant in Times Square. I’m pretty sure I was not very good at it. I was being very hard on myself, and in March [2002], I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ ”

The sense of purpose the couple had shared was gone. They left their jobs and that August went to France, picked grapes and learned how to make wine. In October, they came home — to Tarboro, where her father, Russell “Rusty” Holderness ’72, had planted the seed for what would become On the Square. Holderness — a real estate buyer’s agent and candy maker, selling his own brand of peanut brittle in local outlets — and another investor offered to buy the former record store-turned-luncheonette if his daughter and her then-fiance would commit to running it for 18 months.

“We were skeptical at first,” Inez said about her father’s proposal. Tarboro is in one of the poorest counties in the state, 
and its industrial and agricultural economy was struggling.

It also was, as Stephen described it, a “culinary wasteland.”

They said yes.

Day and night

A dozen years later, On the Square retains a small-town feel. The original wooden booths lining one side have a refinished spiffiness. Photographs of a bygone era adorn the walls, including when Andy Griffith ’49 visited and downtown Tarboro was a bustling place.

The lunch counter

By day, On the Square is a small-town, casual lunch spot. (Photos by Bill Goode Photography)

By day, the menu includes standard lunchtime fare with a few big-city touches, catering to a largely local crowd. “We run a few specials a day,” Stephen said, but otherwise the lunch menu is “soups, salads, sandwiches, a couple of pasta dishes, and except for a few breads, everything is made from scratch.”

On the Square table at night

At night, the lunch counter becomes a bar and the vibe is more spiffy.

At night, the linen tablecloths come out, and On the Square puts on the Ritz. A host greets customers at the door, a bartender serves drinks from behind the lunch counter-turned-bar, a wait staff provides table service, and everyone, including the owners, wears more formal attire while maintaining an informal attitude.

The dinner menu changes from week to week. While customers may describe the food as New York-style cuisine, Stephen disagrees. “Typically, restaurants in New York are very focused,” he said. “You have a steakhouse or you have the cuisine of northeastern Italy. It gets that specific because you’re trying to find your niche.”

He includes a wide range of food types and cooking techniques — among them, French, Italian and Japanese — and applies them to the best beef, poultry, fish and produce he can find. “One thing we try not to use are products that we think are bad, processed nonsense,” he said. “We try to buy all naturally made products that have integrity and don’t have chemicals in them.”

His wife likens what they do to the farm-to-menu movement in Europe. There, she said, “if you want to eat well, you go 
to a farmhouse in a remote village. We are in a huge agricultural area. Why can’t we do the same thing?

“People like eating good food, and they want to feel good about what they eat,” she said. “If they feel like they can go and eat something they can’t cook at home and that’s made from the bounty of the land, they feel good about it.”

Based on the reviews of many who have eaten at On the Square, the Ribustellos excel at both — preparing delicious food and making people feel good about their dining experience. Colleen Minton, founder and director of Chapel Hill’s annual TerraVita Food & Drink Festival, said Inez has “one of the best palates I’ve ever encountered” and Stephen is “a huge student of food” who “really examines what makes a dish better.” Their combined efforts, she said, “created the best pairing meal I’ve ever had in my life. … Every single bit of the meal from start to finish was spectacular.”

Referring to Tarboro as a “little bump in the road,” Shari Redhage said, “Sometimes we do have to travel for shopping or maybe even a movie, but we certainly don’t have to go anywhere to have a good meal.”

From its debut, Inez said, On the Square had a local following. But it has taken a series of incremental changes to transform it into a destination restaurant. One of the first was to provide tapas-style servings, a variety of mix-and-match foods, on Thursday and Friday nights, which morphed into a full dinner menu Thursday through Saturday. Adding modern point-of-sale and online open-table reservation systems, along with consistent recognition from Wine Spectator, helped. But the two most pivotal changes came when they invested in a liquor license and catered their first wedding.

With the liquor license, “that’s when it really got real,” Ribustello said. “All of a sudden, we went from two servers to four servers. Then we hired a food runner.” As for the wedding, she said, “once people found out we could do that and we could do it well, we could serve a lot of people, our catering business was really able to grow.” Today, to accommodate both the restaurant and catering, the Ribustellos employ 25 to 30 people at any given time.

“We didn’t have the means to [start with] this super fancy, expensive, everything-that-you-could-ever-want in a restaurant,” she said. “We have built it, and I feel like because of that, we love it more. We value it more, because it didn’t just fall in our lap.”

Brewmaster Franklin Winslow

Brewmaster Franklin Winslow stands in the interior of a former car dealership that is undergoing renovation to turn it into the Tarboro Brewing Co., a craft beer brewery, the Ribustellos’ latest enterprise. (Bill Goode Photography)

Major expansion on tap

In a 10,000-square-foot space that was once a car dealership, the Tarboro Brewing Co. will represent a major expansion. The brewery and taproom are the result of an $800,000 investment — $200,000 from the state’s Main Street Solutions program and $600,000 from investors in New York, Atlanta, Wilmington, Greenville and Tarboro. “I’m nervous and scared and excited,” Ribustello said. “It’s the biggest project we’ve ever done.”

Sometimes, it’s also the most frustrating.

Building renovations, equipment delivery and the federal licensing process with the Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau have all dragged out seemingly forever. “We are coming along,” she wrote in her blog, InezSays, “but as most aspects of new businesses, if you’re building it rather than buying it, every single thing takes longer than you anticipate.”

When the brewery opens in September, the crowd of patrons likely will include many of the same people from near and far who helped celebrate On the Square’s latest anniversary. And Ribustello likely will be thanking them “with everything I have” for everything they’ve done.

Lucy Hood ’83 is a freelance writer based in Raleigh.

Ribustellos in front of On the Square

“We didn’t have the means to [start with] this super fancy, expensive, everything-that-you-could-ever-want in a restaurant,” says Inez Ribustello, with her husband, Stephen. “We have built it, and I feel like because of that, we love it more.” (Bill Goode Photography)

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