Photos by Cameron Flaisch
Spring is in the air, and with the warmer weather comes the urge to get out of the house for a night on the town. Nothing gets the evening going like pulling up to the table at a fantastic place to enjoy a meal. With our options seemingly growing with every month that passes, those eateries that leave a lasting impression on us are often first on the list.
Visiting a neighborhood staple is always a hit, but with the budding trees and the scent of blooming flowers comes the willingness for adventure and new experiences. Not even a half hour outside of Rome, in the heart of Downtown Rockmart, is a destination restaurant that will have folks racing back for more. A family with roots in Northwest Georgia has chosen this charming little town to give back to the place and the people who have be so instrumental in their lives. The restaurant industry is just one of many businesses Andrew Heaner has started locally, and his pursuit of excellence in all things opens the doors for working families to realize their dreams as well.
At first glance, you’d think that Knucklehead Café (217 West Elm St., Rockmart) was lifted from a popular vacay destination and dropped minutes from your front door.
Starting as a vision in the minds of Andrew and Mary Helen Heaner, Knucklehead Café is now a reality after opening their doors two years ago. And with a name like Knucklehead, this high-end establishment instantly wets the inquisitive chops of passersby.
A Knucklehead is the name given to a specific 1947 model of vintage Harley Davidson motorcycle. Andrew Heaner collects all kinds of motorcycles and he felt that the new restaurant would be the perfect place to display some of the history found in his collection. The décor of the restaurant stands as a museum of motorcycles, and because of the attention the Knucklehead crew pays to the food, they get visitors from all walks of life through the doors. A great majority of their patrons are families and people who want to enjoy high-quality cuisine.
As you enter the front doors, you are greeted by a welcoming smile from one of Knucklehead’s 20-plus staff members. The eye is then drawn to a display of custom choppers fabricated by Mark Martin who is also responsible for the detailed ironwork scattered throughout the dining rooms, and on the outside of the building. Eric Tant, director of food services, points out a couple of his favorite pieces in the collection of two-wheeled machines. “These are very early models of motorcycles that were made in the 1920s,” Tant says as he points to a row of motorbikes that are equipped with peddles. Both Tant and David Heaner talk about the collection as if giving a tour of a gallery, each piece having its own story to tell.
With exposed wood and stonework touches, the space feels more like a resort than a place to enjoy a meal. From the distressed hardwoods in the bar, to one of the original Pabst Blue Ribbon bars that served guests years ago, every inch of Knucklehead Café has been crafted with purpose.
However, the thing that keeps the tables full and the kitchen busy is the food. “We love the collection of bikes, but what we really strive to provide is great food, great service and cleanliness,” Heaner says as he walks towards the state-of-the-art kitchen. “Everything we make is fresh and we use the best ingredients available. We have even developed and packaged our own brand of gourmet seasonings, meat rubs and sauces under our Runnin’ Wild brand, because we are serious about the food that comes from our kitchen. For example, we have developed a buffalo seasoning that tastes exactly like the wet sauce you will find on chicken wings. We have a dish that is unique to our establishment called buffalo fries. We sprinkle the fries with our seasoning so that they are not soggy. People are really surprised at how much they taste like buffalo sauce.”
The menu does not stop at burgers and fries. Chris Peek, executive chef at Knucklehead Café, is putting his special touches on everything from salmon and asparagus, to Certified Angus Beef ribeyes. A full soup and salad bar are also available for hungry guests. Even the mac and cheese has been given the royal treatment, because no plate leaves the window without the attention to detail that the Knucklehead staff requires. And if you are a fan of slow-roasted meats that fall off the bone, you are in luck. Knucklehead as sought out the best methods for smoking meat that pairs perfectly with their seasoning line.
“This is a smoker that was designed by Myron Mixon, who is an award winning grill master,” Tant explains as he lifts the lid on the mammoth-sized outdoor oven. “As you can see, we smoke all of our own meats. From the ribs and beef briskets, to the hams we use for our pulled pork dishes, we do it all right here. Most people use Boston Butts for pulled pork, but we have found that hams give us the flavor profile that suits the quality of pork we want to provide. We have been told that our ribs, smoked with our Runnin’ Wild Pork Candy rub, are outstanding. They really are some of the best ribs I have ever eaten.”
The wings at Knucklehead also get the kiss from hickory smoke before they are finished in the deep fryer for a crispy crust. “I really love the crunch of a wing when I take the first bite,” says Tant. “That’s why we will take the extra step of frying the wings, so that our customers can still enjoy the smoky flavor and the texture they have become accustomed to. And we have a wide variety of wing sauces that we can toss them with. Personally, I really like to mix the buffalo sauce with our lemon pepper seasoning. If you prefer the traditional preparation of wings, we can accommodate customers as well. The option is available for wings to come to your table hot and crispy from the fryer, without the smoke flavor added. The flavor is great and I haven’t seen many restaurants experiment with recipes like we do here.”
Signature seafood dishes, like the shrimp served with a smoked tomato aioli, and penne Alfredo all leave the kitchen with perfection in mind. Some diners even choose a bold addition to pasta by adding Knucklehead’s house-made smoked beef sausage.
If meat is not for you, then several vegetarian options are available for order. The wait staff is knowledgeable and helpful as they guide tables through the many choices they have on the menu. Robin Haney, general manager of Knucklehead Café, visits every table to ask about their meal. Her engaging personality gives diners a sense of eating at a close friend’s home, as she works to ensure all guests are happy and full of tasty food. Again, Andrew Heaner’s emphasis on providing high-quality businesses has inspired team members who really take pride in the service they provide. “Eric, Chris and Robin are wonderful and we couldn’t do this without our team,” David Heaner smiles. “We are really happy with what they have accomplished.”
Hopefully, everyone saves room for dessert. Knucklehead crafts a signature pie that changes each month. In March, the chocolate mint option was served to families who savored the sweet delight until the last crumb was gone. In April, the pie will change. One can’t help but be curious as to what Peter Cottontail will leave at Knucklehead’s doorstep in celebration of spring.
After the meal, don’t forget to stop by a corner of the restaurant reserved for guests who want to take something home. Runnin’ Wild seasonings, meat rubs and sauces are sold along with Steak n’ a Bag, which is the Heaner’s brand of beef jerky. Flavors like Habanero Chipotle and Honey Glazed Pepper add a bold twist to jerky that eats more like a steak than the leathery textured variety most are accustomed to. Locally sourced honey, pickled veggies and hoop cheese are also there and waiting for a cupboard near you.
As ladies who are members of the local Red Hat Society prepare for dinner and teenagers from Rockmart High School pile in the doors for a weekly radio sports show that is broadcast live from Knucklehead’s dining room floor, every face wears a smile.
Mark Garrett, a regular at Knucklehead, tells us what it has meant to his hometown to have a place this special be a gathering place. “You just can’t get food like this often. The burger with Gouda cheese is so great. Everything I’ve eaten here has been delicious,” Garrett says. “I am a lifelong resident of Rockmart and I remember when this building was a Chevrolet dealership. To see what they have done with this space is truly amazing. When I walked through the doors I thought to myself, there is nothing like this anywhere! We are fortunate to have Knucklehead here.”
Visit Knucklehead Café online at www.knuckleheadcafe.com or call ahead to book large parties at 770-684-6511.